The U.S. Interior Department recently canceled seven oil and gas leases in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were hastily sold during the final days of the Trump administration. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated that with the cancellation, “no one will have rights to drill for oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on earth.” However, a 2017 law requires another lease sale by late 2024, which the Biden administration says it intends to comply with.
The Arctic Refuge’s remote 1.5 million-acre coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea is considered sacred to the Indigenous Gwich’in people, as it is where the caribou they rely on migrate and give birth each year. For decades, Alaska politicians have pushed to open the area up to oil and gas drilling, and in 2017 they succeeded in getting language inserted into a federal tax law that mandated two lease sales in the region before 2024.
In 2021, the Interior Department under President Biden issued an executive order to pause the leasing program so it could conduct a new rigorous environmental review, arguing the Trump administration’s rushed process had “multiple legal deficiencies.” Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld the delay for further analysis as reasonable (Washington Post).
While Alaska leaders aim to allow oil and gas extraction in the refuge, conservation groups and the Gwich’in Steering Committee see the area as sacred and ecologically fragile. The coastal plain provides important habitat for polar bears, migratory birds, and the Porcupine caribou herd.
The fate of the Arctic Refuge remains unsettled. For now, the Biden administration has pushed the pause button on drilling, but may be required to hold another lease sale in the coming years. Environmental advocates continue to urge permanent protections, while Alaska officials want to tap into potential oil reserves. The back-and-forth leaves the future of this sensitive landscape uncertain.