Biden’s Push to Block Drilling in Alaska a Boon to Wildlife, Conservationists Say

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska Lisa Hupp / USFWS

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would cancel all remaining oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration opened to development in 2021. Conservationists say the move is a boon to wildlife in one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth.

The Interior Department will formally undo the controversial sale of nine drilling leases that span more than 430,000 acres of Alaska’s coastal plain. “The Porcupine Caribou Herd birth their calves here — a reliable source of sustenance for the Gwich’in and Inupiat people for thousands of years,” said Steve MacLean, managing director of WWF’s Arctic program. Drilling in the region would have been devastating, he said.

After drillers canceled two of the nine leases, officials determined that the sale of the remaining seven rested on flawed legal pretenses. MacLean said their cancellation is “a monumental step in the right direction.”

In the announcement, the Interior Department also proposed “maximum protection” for nearly half of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, explicitly prohibiting any new leases on 10.6 million acres of wilderness and raising the bar for allowing potential future development in non-restricted areas. The move will help protect polar bears, caribou, geese, ducks, and other wildlife in the reserve.

“The reality is you can’t drill near a denning polar bear and assume you’ll not harm or spook her or her cubs,” said Steve Blackledge of Environment America. “Caribou are very skittish about industrial drilling operations, too.”

The Biden administration’s moves may serve as a balm to some conservationists after the government approved the expansive Willow oil project in the petroleum reserve earlier this year. The Wednesday announcement does not affect its plans, which, if realized, could lead to the pumping of nearly 200,000 barrels of oil from the Alaskan wilderness every day.


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