Biden administration moves to restrict oil and gas leases on 13m acres in Alaska

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The Biden administration said on Friday it will restrict new oil and gas leasing on 13m acres (5.3m hectares) of a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska to help protect wildlife such as caribou and polar bears as the Arctic continues to warm.

The decision – part of an ongoing, years-long fight over whether and how to develop the vast oil resources in the state – finalizes protections first proposed last year as the Biden administration prepared to approve the controversial Willow oil project.

The approval of Willow drew fury from environmentalists, who said the large oil project violated Biden’s pledge to combat the climate crisis. Friday’s decision also cements an earlier plan that called for closing nearly half the reserve to oil and gas leasing.

The rules announced on Friday would place restrictions on future leasing and industrial development in areas designated as special for their wildlife, subsistence or other values and call for the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate regularly whether to designate new special areas or bolster protections in those areas. The agency cited as a rationale the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, including melting permafrost and changes in plant life and wildlife corridors.

Environmentalists were pleased. “This huge, wild place will be able to remain wild,” Ellen Montgomery of Environment America Research & Policy Center said.

Jeremy Lieb, an attorney with Earthjustice, said the administration had taken an important step to protect the climate with the latest decision. Earthjustice is involved in litigation currently before a federal appeals court that seeks to overturn the Willow project’s approval. A decision in that case is pending.

Earlier this week the Biden administration also finalized a new rule for public land management that is meant to put conservation on more equal footing with oil drilling, grazing and other extractive industries on vast government-owned properties.

A group of Republican lawmakers, led by Alaska’s junior senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, commented ahead of Friday’s announcements about drilling limitations in the national petroleum reserve in Alaska even before it was publicly announced. Sullivan called it an “illegal” attack on the state’s economic lifeblood, and predicted lawsuits.

“It’s more than a one-two punch to Alaska, because when you take off access to our resources, when you say you cannot drill, you cannot produce, you cannot explore, you cannot move it – this is the energy insecurity that we’re talking about,” Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, said.

The decision by the Department of the Interior does not change the terms of existing leases in the reserve or affect currently authorized operations, including the Willow project.