ANWR meeting

Eric Engman/News-Miner

A packed room listens to speakers during a BLM public hearing on ANWR coastal plain lease sales Monday evening, Feb. 4, 2019 at the Carlson Center.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation criticized the Biden administration’s plan for a new environmental review of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The review will examine the potential impact of energy development in the refuge’s coastal plain. The Trump administration opened up 1.5 million acres for drilling lease sales prior to the former president leaving office.

President Joe Biden subsequently suspended oil and gas leases in the refuge, ordering the Interior Department to take a closer look at the impact on wildlife and the environment.

The Alaska Wilderness League and other conservation groups lauded this week’s announcement for the new environmental impact review to take place. The preserve’s coastal plain is a breeding ground for polar bears and caribou, as well as home to many species of migratory birds.

But Alaska’s top political leaders described the environmental review as a political maneuver and unnecessary. Dunleavy said in a prepared statement that environmental reviews in 2019 concluded that oil and gas drilling would not harm the refuge.

The governor accused the Biden administration of trying to “shut down Alaska’s primary industry” to satisfy environmentalists and “turn our state into one big national park.”

Dunleavy described Alaska as America’s “energy warehouse.”

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan lambasted the review as “just another political stall tactic at the behest of radical environmental groups and far-left members of the administration.“

Sullivan said that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already did the required scientific studies: “The Biden administration has thrown the work of the BLM career scientists out the window.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that Alaska has been urging Congress for decades to implement an oil and gas leasing program in the coastal plain. She too said that the necessary reviews were done.

“A distinguished team of career experts and scientists at the Department of the Interior spent thousands of hours over nearly two years developing a full range of alternatives and protective mitigation measures,” Murkowski said.

U.S. Rep. Don Young called the environmental review an attempt to delay resource exploration in the refuge through “bureaucratic red tape.”

Public Notice of Intent

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the environmental review through a public Notice of Intent published this week in the Federal Register.

Haaland previously questioned the legal basis for the Trump-era decision for gas and oil lease activities in the coastal plain.

The new review will examine whether the Trump administration met federal requirements under the Endangered Species Act, among other environmental laws.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation, acquired seven leases prior to a moratorium implemented under Biden. The leases span more than 350,000 acres.

The authority said this week it will award SAExploration the right to conduct pre-development permitting and planning work for oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain.

“Activities will support a phased, multi-year seismic acquisition program targeted to begin in 2022,” the authority said.

The authority estimates that the area contains more than 7.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Alan Weitzner, executive director at the authority, said that Alaska’s Statehood Act and actions by Congress support access for oil and gas development. In 2017, Congress passed a tax cut bill that included a measure calling for lease sales in the refuge.

“We remain focused on realizing the promises made and the benefits conferred upon all Alaska,” he said.

‘Most active bidder’

“The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was the high bidder, by far the most active bidder, and saw little competition in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain lease sale Jan. 6,” S&P Global reported when the lease sales commenced.

Energy analyst Parker Fawcett said at the time that big oil companies including ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp were not taking part, S&P Global reported.

“The political and regulatory risk under a Biden administration, along with minimal appetite for expensive exploration in the most controversial region in North America,” outweighed the potential benefits for big oil companies to drill in the region, Fawcett said in the S&P Global article.

The Alaska Wilderness League said this week it was encouraged by the announcement of the environmental review.

“As we continue to face a worsening climate crisis, there is no place for the rushed, inadequate Arctic Refuge oil and gas plan finalized under the previous administration,” said Kristen Miller, acting director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

The Alaska Wilderness League and other conservation groups are urging the Biden administration to buy back the leases and for Congress to enact more permanent protections.

“Until those leases are canceled and the Arctic Refuge drilling mandate reversed, one of the wildest places left in America will remain under threat,” Miller said.

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 907-459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.

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