The Biden administration on Sept. 6, 2023, announced steps to block drilling on more than 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) and protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The moves were the latest in a series of policy decisions that already have removed more than 21 million acres from potential oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and now Alaska.
In ANWR, the Department of the Interior authorized cancellation of the remaining seven oil and gas leases of nine issued by the Trump administration in Alaska’s coastal plain, citing insufficient analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and failure to properly interpret the Tax Act. The other two leases had already been cancelled and refunded at the request of the lessees.
NPR-A encompasses roughly 23 million acres and is home to more than 40 indigenous communities, many of which subsist primarily from food harvest there, according to the administration. The administration’s new proposed rule would prohibit new leasing in 10.6 million acres (more than 40% of NPR-A).
This is clearly not the sort of announcement the oil and gas industry was wanting. Aside from the occasional isolated victory—approval of ConocoPhillips Willow project on Alaska’s North Slope, for example—it is, however, the type it’s come to expect.
This tendency will likely only accelerate as the 2024 elections draw nearer. It’s hard to parse presidential statements like this one, made in association with the Alaska announcements, any differently: “My administration will continue to take bold action to meet the urgency of the climate crisis and to protect our lands and waters for generations to come.”
Where things get sticky
Along the way, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been applying pressure in other ways: increasing royalties on federal land for the first time since 1920, raising the reclamation lease bond that companies must pay before they start drilling to $150,000 from $10,000, and quintupling the minimum bid to lease an acre of federal land to $10/acre. Next up is a BLM proposal to start offering “conservation leases” as part of its land management process.
These actions are all in line with the sorts of things that happen when elections are held and Americans elect a candidate with support from the environmental lobby. Even so, regulations that change every 4 years make it difficult to make long-range plans, needlessly harming both the industry and the country itself.
More problematic is when bureaucratic actions run counter to existing statutes. “The leases [Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority held] in ANWR were legally issued in a sale mandated by Congress…Federal agencies don’t get to rewrite laws, and that is exactly what the Department of the Interior is trying to do here,” said Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy in addressing the most recent turn of events.
Another lease sale needs to happen by late 2024, according to the same 2017 law under which the just-cancelled leases were awarded. The administration has said it intends to comply with the law, but its recent record offers reason for pause.
And as with most important matters, there’re more than two issues to consider in this instance (nature vs. energy): there’re local communities affected. Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE) president Nagruk Harcharek said that the Biden administration’s decision “to rescind leases in the ANWR and further ‘protect’ 13 million acres of our ancestral homelands flies in the face of our region’s wishes and self-determination.” VOICE is in favor of opening the 1002 Area of ANWR, along the Beaufort Sea’s coastal plain, to exploration and development.
Regulatory whiplash, scofflaw behavior, and the trampling of local needs might be effective levers of policy implementation in the short term, but they’re no way to build anything that lasts.