Located in northeastern Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the biggest wildlife refuge in the US. For over 30 years, it’s been a battling ground between industrialists, environmentalists and their representatives in government. The 19.2 million-acre ecosystem is thought to sit atop huge gas and oil reserves, but it’s also home to scarce populations of polar bears and caribou.
The long fight over the ANWR’s fate took another turn on Tuesday as the Biden administration announced it has suspended gas and oil drilling leases pending a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
It’s a significant reversal of the previous administration’s policy. In his final weeks in office, President Donald Trump made 430,000 acres of the ANWR available for drilling under the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. On Jan. 19, his last full day in office, Trump issued the first lease.
On Jan. 20, Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order halting any drilling in the ANWR, citing “alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program, including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act.” Tuesday’s announcement from the Department of the Interior begins “a comprehensive environmental analysis” to review the environmental and legal feasibility of the leasing program.
The ANWR was created in 1960 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but debates began in Washington throughout the 1970s over whether parts of the refuge should be open to drilling in order to boost domestic oil production. Both of Alaska’s senators approve of drilling in the ANWR, as does its governor. Oil has transformed Alaska’s economy since 1977, when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built: Thanks to the profits, Alaskans pay no state income or sales taxes and receive yearly dividends ($1,606 in 2019) from the Permanent Fund, created in 1976 to manage oil revenues.
On the other side, environmentalists have pointed out that the Refuge is a key breeding ground for polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would imperil the polar population, as well as the diverse marine ecoystem. In recent decades, the threat of climate change has added an additional environmental cost to using oil as energy.
“Thanks to President [Joe] Biden’s action in January and today, the caribou and polar bears can live undisturbed by heavy equipment, roads and pollution from drilling operations,” Ellen Montgomery, a campaign director at Environment America, said in a statement.
“While this buys some time, the fight to protect this unique and pristine area is not over. We’re calling on Congress to establish permanent protections for this wild, remote area,” she said. “Oil leases should never have been sold in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we now need our leaders to make sure it never happens again.”
Biden’s move to halt drilling in the ANWR serves as a high-profile way for the president to signal his desire to tackle climate change, a desire that’s been questioned in recent days after his administration defended in court an oil drilling operation in Alaska’s North Slope.
In April, Biden committed the US to reducing green house gas emissions by 50% to 52% below the 2005 level by 2030 — up from President Barack Obama’s pledge to reduce levels by 26% to 28%.