Alaska didn't have to wait long to feel the effects of the administration change in Washington, D.C., following President Joe Biden's Jan. 27 directives pausing oil and gas leasing across millions of acres of federal lands and waters in the state.
Conservation groups hailed the executive order, which is effective nationwide, as a significant first step towards addressing climate change while Alaska's leaders largely criticized the president for ignoring the economic realities facing the state and nation.
Interior Department officials stressed that the order does not impact previously issued leases, permits or approved activities.
The nationwide order also followed a more expected executive order suspending all activity related to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge issued on Biden's first day in office.
An additional Jan. 20 decree from Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega suspended staff-level authority to issue drilling permits, among other things, for up to 60 days. The secretarial order slowed the issuance of a North Slope exploration drilling permit for Australian-based 88 Energy, which is prospecting the southeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, for several days but the company announced Feb. 1 it had received the permit to drill the Merlin-1 well from Bureau of Land Management officials and mobilization is underway.
88 Energy Managing Director Dave Wall thanked the congressional delegation and BLM appointees for working to resolve the permit application submitted Jan. 12.
"After a brief hiatus in activity, it is now back to full operations with ramp-up towards the spud of Merlin-1, which is expected in around four weeks," he said.
The single, remote well is expected to cost $12.6 million, according to the small explorer.
Biden further ordered reviews of all major regulatory actions taken during the Trump administration, which in Alaska was many. In addition to conducting the first lease sale for the ANWR coastal plain — after a 40-year fight — Interior also overhauled the NPR-A land use plan to open more of the sought-after northeast corner of the reserve to leasing; it also happens to be an area of prime summer migratory bird and caribou habitat.
The agency took other steps to designate much of the general purpose BLM holdings across the state as eligible for mineral exploration under President Donald Trump as well.
While a sharp departure from Trump administration energy policies was expected, it's not yet completely clear how far Biden is willing to go.
Interior officials have said there is no timeframe for the leasing program pause and review, but a permanent moratorium — or at least four years — on federal leasing would sharply curtail development in the NPR-A, which has again become highly prospective with industry technological advancements and new formation discoveries.
Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation collectively chastised Biden for putting Alaska's oil-dependent economy at greater risk than it already is, among other things.
"This sweeping, misguided policy will kill good paying middle-class jobs, make America more reliant on foreign sources of energy, empower global bad actors like Russia and Iran, and ultimately hurt the president's climate change goals as more oil and gas is produced by nations with much lower environmental standards," Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a prepared statement.
At the state level, rural Alaska Native lawmakers have also been critical of the administration's energy policies, arguing they impinge on the rights of North Slope residents to develop economic opportunities in the region and basic infrastructure that is often taken for granted elsewhere.
"Over the years, we Inupiat of the north have exercised our right to self-governance over natural resources — both seal oil and crude oil," Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, said in a joint statement from the Legislature's Bush Caucus. "We have struck the proper balance between our cultural and traditional lifestyle and the reality of a cash economy. This type of overreach hinders our ability to provide basic services like running water and reliable home heat in Kaktovik and the rest of the North Slope."
Longtime conservative Alaska political strategist and former Republican communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Robert Dillon said in an interview that the new president is attempting to satisfy a broad group of constituents with his early actions and they do not mean that drilling for oil is over.
"You can't just turn off the taps — no pun intended — on U.S. oil production. It's not going to be all or nothing; it's just going to be less, harder. They'll do things that will make production more expensive and harder," Dillon said, adding that exploring ANWR is off the table for the foreseeable future but "maybe the NPR-A makes sense; Alaska's got a good argument to make."
The Biden administration needs to focus on market-based climate solutions rather than top-down mandates if it wants to be successful legislatively with Republicans, which is the only way to make long-term changes, according to Dillon.
"An EO is more of a club than an olive branch," he said.
Putting price an upstream tax on carbon is one national policy that producers can reliably account for — some already are — he highlighted, which is partly why it has garnered support from some of the largest oil producers in the country.
ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance reiterated that the company continues to advocate for a "well-designed price on carbon in the U.S. because we believe that's the most economic, efficient and effective step that can be taken by the U.S. to set the world on a long-term sustainable path to (greenhouse gas) emissions reductions," he said.
Sullivan's spokesman Nate Adams wrote in response to questions about the senator's thoughts on climate policy that he believes the orders are the result of "lofty campaign promises, not a thought-out strategy designed to combat climate change."
According to Adams, Sullivan wants a national policy to come from debate and compromise in Congress, "not from the unilateral stroke of President Biden's pen."
He also noted that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined significantly since 2005 while the country also grew to become the largest oil producer in the world.
He did not directly address Sullivan's stance on a carbon tax, but instead wrote that, "solutions to climate change — from adaptation to mitigation — are broad and complex. They will require coming together at the federal level to incentivize renewable energy, maintain reliable and affordable energy, spur innovation for new technology and energy storage, and help communities adapt and address climate change on the front lines, like in Alaska. These are the issues that Sen. Sullivan has worked on throughout his time in Congress."
A spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not respond to similar questions in time for this story, but Murkowski has touted her omnibus energy reform bill passed late last year as a major step towards energy efficiency and clean energy research and development.