Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - ANWR

This undated photo shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. President Trump is rushing to auction drilling rights in the Refuge before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. (US Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images/TNS)

Oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) are on the chopping block as the Biden Administration moves to reverse a Trump decision that opened more than a million acres in the coastal plain for drilling.

Up to a dozen oil and gas leases are at stake in a decision Tuesday by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to suspend the signed agreements pending further environmental review. 

"While that analysis is pending, I direct a temporary halt on all [Interior] Department activities related to the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Arctic Refuge," Haaland said in the signed order.

The Trump administration auctioned off drilling rights in the coastal plain Jan. 6, just two weeks before Joe Biden was inaugurated president.

The oil and gas industry has sought to open up ANWR to drilling for more than 40 years.

The Biden administration contends that oil and gas leases in ANWR — facilitated by Trump during his final days in office — were rushed and did not follow proper legal protocol.

Conservation groups and gas-and-oil industry organizations reacted to the temporary halt of oil and gas activities in ANWR.

“Reports that the Biden administration plans to suspend signed, legal leases [in ANWR] are part of a bigger, nefarious, anti-Alaska agenda,” said Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director of Power the Future, an advocacy group with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

The Alaska Wilderness League lauded the move while advocating for a permanent ban on drilling in the coastal plain, a critical habitat for waterfowl, calving caribou and polar bears.

“Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction, and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new program analysis that prioritizes sound science and adequate tribal consultation,” said Corey Himrod, senior communication manager with the Alaska Wilderness League.

An Alaska tribal group also noted the suspension, saying it would protect sacred lands. 

“The Gwich’in Nation is grateful and heartened by the news that the Biden administration has acted again on its commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The suspension follows President Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order that imposed a temporary moratorium on new gas and oil drilling in the refuge. 

When he signed the order, Biden indicated that the Interior Department would conduct an environmental review.

The review, announced Tuesday, could yield new restrictions on future oil and gas development in the refuge or put a permanent end to the signed lease agreements.

The action comes on the heels of the Biden administration filing a legal brief last week in support of the Willow energy project by ConocoPhillips Alaska. The reservoir is estimated to hold up to 300 million barrels of oil.

The Willow project is located in the National Petroleum Reserve, just outside ANWR.

The back-to-back decisions show the balancing act by the Biden administration as it acts on a pledge to move the nation toward less dependence on fossil fuels for renewable energy sources.

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