The 1.5 million acre coastal plain is the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This wild place, the calving ground of the porcupine caribou herd and an annual destination for nearly a million migratory birds, should be protected from destructive human activities such as oil drilling.
But the oil industry and its allies in Congress and the Alaska state government have other plans.
In 2017, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a tax act that not only authorized, but required, leasing this precious land to oil and gas companies. The Trump administration rushed the process to set up a sale. Despite a lawsuit filed by Indigenous and environmental groups, the Trump administration held an oil and gas lease sale in January 2021. Given the results, it’s unclear why the Trump administration was in such a hurry. Only half of the tracts offered were bid on and big oil companies were conspicuously absent.
The Biden administration reviewed the coastal plain leasing program and concluded it lacked appropriate environmental review. So in June 2021, the Biden administration suspended the leases. Since then, all but one leaseholder, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), has pulled out of their leases.
AIDEA, which has spent at least $12 million on leases in the refuge, is not an oil company. It is a state owned corporation with a mission of financing business opportunities in Alaska and growing the economy. AIDEA has no capacity to develop the leases itself, and would have to partner with an oil company to do so.
It would make sense for AIDEA to follow the lead of oil companies and other leaseholders and cancel its lease. But none of this makes sense. AIDEA is not only holding onto its lease, but it also has sued the Biden administration over the lease suspensions. Even though a federal judge recently upheld the administration’s decision to suspend the leases, AIDEA is moving ahead with plans to find partners that can do permitting and work in preparation for a future seismic program to figure out where oil exists underground. Presumably, AIDEA plans to hold its leases until a more oil-friendly administration allows it to move forward with plans to drill. We cannot let that happen.
While AIDEA is plowing ahead with plans to drill in the refuge, the Biden administration is reviewing the environmental impact that oil drilling could have in the area. The public will have a chance to comment on the environmental impacts of oil drilling before the Bureau of Land Management issues new procedures for the legally mandated coastal plain drilling program.
It is clear that the Trump administration’s version of the coastal plain drilling program lacked the proper environmental review and the Department of the Interior never should have held the lease sale in that administration’s lame duck days in 2021. The other leaseholders have recognized this and pulled out. If AIDEA will not do the same, it’s time for President Biden and the Bureau of Land Management to cancel the leases.
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.