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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden limits oil drilling across 13 million acres of Alaskan Arctic

By Maxine Joselow Washington Post

Future oil and gas drilling will be limited across more than 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the nation’s largest expanse of public land, under a sweeping Biden administration plan aimed at protecting sensitive ecosystems and wildlife.

The Interior Department’s final rule represents one of President Biden’s most significant steps to curb fossil fuel development on federal lands. It could help the president’s reelection campaign court young voters, a key Democratic constituency, after many youth climate activists criticized the administration’s approval of a massive drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope last year.

In a separate move, Interior announced Friday that it will block a controversial road crucial to operating a planned copper and zinc mine in northern Alaska, saying it would threaten Indigenous communities and fragment wildlife habitat. Together, the two decisions are aimed at safeguarding some of Alaska’s last wild places from development.

In a statement, Biden said he was proud of his administration’s efforts to protect the Arctic for current and future generations.

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world, sustaining a vibrant subsistence economy for Alaska Native communities,” Biden said. “These natural wonders demand our protection.”

Both moves carry political and legal risks for the administration. In particular, the protections for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are expected to face lawsuits from fossil fuel companies and fierce opposition from Alaskan lawmakers, including Rep. Mary Peltola, a popular Democrat who faces a tough re-election contest.

Peltola, whose race will help determine which party controls the House, said in a statement Friday that the administration was ignoring Alaskans’ preferences for drilling and mining.

“Alaska has a wealth of natural resources that can be responsibly developed to help boost domestic manufacturing and innovation – in the end, it should be up to Alaskans to decide what they want developed in their regions,” Peltola said.

The roughly 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is one of the most ecologically valuable tracts of federal land. It provides a critical refuge for tens of thousands of migrating caribou, as well as polar bears, grizzly bears, walruses and waterfowl.

Teshekpuk Lake, in the eastern part of the reserve, is one of the most important places for waterfowl in the entire Arctic. Up to 100,000 geese converge on the area each summer, seeking safety from predators as they molt and become flightless. The adjacent wetlands serve as breeding grounds for several types of shorebirds, including dunlins, sandpipers and black-bellied plovers.

Yet the reserve, about the size of Indiana, is also one of the most promising onshore oil prospects in the country. Two weeks before leaving office, President Donald Trump sought to open up the reserve to oil and gas leasing, saying it would make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

The Biden administration has reversed course. In a proposed rule released last year, the Interior Department called for designating approximately 13 million acres of the reserve as “special areas” where future oil and gas leasing would be limited. The agency also recommended an outright ban on new leasing across 10.6 million acres – more than 40% of the reserve.

The final rule closely resembles the proposed rule. Like the proposal, it would not affect ConocoPhillips’s controversial Willow oil drilling project or other existing leases in the reserve. Willow alone could produce between 576 million and 614 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years.

“The approval of Willow was certainly disappointing to many of us who recognize the climate impact of oil and gas development,” said Rachael Hamby, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group. “With the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska rule, I think we see a more balanced approach to managing public lands for multiple uses, including conservation.”

Fossil fuel companies disagree. In public comments on the proposed rule, ConocoPhillips wrote that it could “significantly and adversely affect future proposals for new activities and developments” in the reserve. Armstrong Oil & Gas, which has leases in the reserve spanning 1.1 million acres, said the proposal could prevent it from building the infrastructure needed to access those tracts.

The final rule drew a mixed reaction from Alaska Natives, who have lived on the North Slope for millennia and subsist on its caribou.

Doreen Leavitt, director of natural resources for the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, said the administration did not adequately consult Alaska Natives about the economic benefits of fossil fuel development in this remote region. Taxes on oil and gas infrastructure have funded local schools, police officers, firefighters and sanitation services.

“We’re barely 50 years away from getting indoor plumbing, and that was brought by oil and gas,” Leavitt said, adding, “We feel that our voices haven’t been listened to.”

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the former mayor of Nuiqsut, a town of roughly 500 people on the North Slope, said oil drilling has brought both prosperity and peril to her community. The region around Nuiqsut is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. Its average temperature has risen 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels – more than three times the global average, according to a Washington Post analysis of temperature data.

The warmer climate has taken a toll on caribou populations near Nuiqsut, where residents get half their food through hunting. Warmer waters and less sea ice have also shifted the migration patterns of bowhead whales and derailed the fall whale hunt, an essential tradition for the Inupiat of the North Slope.

“We want to protect our cultural traditions,” Ahtuangaruak said. “And we want to give future generations hope that they won’t be continually fighting to protect our way of life.”

Interior’s decision to block Ambler Road is intended to safeguard such lifestyles. In an analysis released Friday, the agency found that the road could threaten the subsistence activities of more than 60 Alaska Native communities, up from 27 communities in a highly contested 2020 analysis completed during the Trump administration. It also found that the road could cause irreparable harm to caribou and permafrost.

As a result, Interior recommended that there should be “no action” on the federal land where the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) wants to build Ambler Road.

If finalized, the decision will prevent AIDEA from receiving a permit to construct the road, and it will effectively block the mining venture Ambler Metals from accessing the planned open-pit mine. The company has yet to seek or obtain permits for the mine.

AIDEA, the state’s publicly owned development corporation, had planned for Ambler Road to extend 211 miles, crossing 11 major rivers and breaking apart unspoiled tundra. Twenty-six of those miles would have carved through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, sending giant trucks rumbling through wild lands where tens of thousands of caribou migrate.

The Trump administration approved a right-of-way permit for Ambler Road in 2020, saying it could provide access to significant copper and cobalt deposits. But after Biden took office, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered a fresh review of the road, saying the previous administration had not adequately studied its environmental impact.

Interior will issue a final record of decision on Ambler Road later this spring. AIDEA, which has sued the administration over its suspension of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, could challenge the final decision in court at that point.