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Feds pull the plug on flubbed ANWR leases
Biden was always going to oppose it, but the shoddy, rushed job by the Trump administration made it that much easier.
Good afternoon, Alaska! It’s Wednesday.
In this edition: Nearly six years after Alaska secured legislation opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, the Biden administration has pulled the plug by canceling the leases and announcing increased environmental protections for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. While the move drew the predictable outrage from Alaska’s delegation—and promises of lawsuits—it’s important to understand just how faulty the lease sale was from the beginning and how those shortcomings played right into Biden’s agenda.
Current mood: 🤭
Feds pull the plug on flubbed ANWR leases
When U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski secured a two-page amendment to the Republicans’ 2017 tax cut bill, it seemed like the impossible had finally happened. After some four decades of fighting, there was now a law on the books calling for a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That set into motion what would ultimately prove to be an overly ambitious—and deeply flawed—effort to race through the environmental analysis of drilling in the refuge so the sale could happen before Trump left office.
Held literally on Jan. 6, 2021, the lease sale can charitably be described as a flop.
A sale expected to generate nearly two billion dollars in bids and lease payments netted less than $15 million, with the Alaska-owned investment corporation coming in as the largest bidder with the majors nowhere to be seen. Since then, there’s been no significant public-facing progress toward drilling in the Arctic Refuge—the leases were almost immediately put on hold by the Biden administration—and the two private companies that secured leases gave them up by the end of 2022.
Today, the Biden administration officially canceled the remaining seven leases, citing climate concerns and underlying problems with the environmental analysis produced in the lead-up to the 2021 lease sale, calling it “seriously flawed.” The administration also announced strengthened environmental regulations for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that would prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of that region (but leave the Willow project untouched).
“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a prepared statement. “The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations.”
While the announcement was predictably denounced by the Alaska delegation, accusing the president of failing to follow the law and ignoring the separation of powers, it’s important to understand just how faulty the lease sale was from the beginning and how those shortcomings played right into Biden’s agenda.
A 2019 report by Politico painted a haphazard, biased process inside the Trump administration as they rushed to prepare the lease sale with the hope that getting leases issued would essentially establish a solid legal right to drill in the refuge. That included political forces altering, omitting or downplaying analysis done by scientists, frequently without the knowledge or input of those scientists. In one example, a biologist’s conclusion that seismic surveys would have an uncertain or potentially harmful impact on polar bears was rewritten to be “less than significant,” an important distinction in environmental analysis lingo.
However, the hurried rush to paper over scientists’ concerns went further than downplaying the environmental concerns, Politico explained. The messy and incomplete process created vulnerabilities in the lease program, even giving major oil companies pause.
A rushed and incomplete review poses a hazard not just to the environment, but to the companies that want to develop it: The less thorough the review, the less they can protect themselves against future legal risk associated with their drilling operations. More sophisticated and experienced companies have even been known to ask federal agencies to spend more time on an impact statement if they have concerns that the agency might be overlooking something of consequence. Asked about the draft environmental impact statement for leasing in the coastal plain, an Interior official with experience working in Alaska said, “Unless there are some significant changes made, our feeling is it’s going to be very susceptible to litigation.”
A thorough environmental review—the kind that can stand up to legal pressure and build confidence with investors—takes several years. Still, the Trump administration was rushing to establish what they hoped would be a foothold in ANWR.
The Politico report goes into detail how the already uneasy relationship between career scientists and pro-drilling political appointees was pushed to its limit as the Department of Interior pushed ahead with an environmental assessment. It notes that several scientists lodged protests about their work being inaccurately reflected in the report after filtering it through the political appointees.
According to two DOI employees in Alaska, there were internal questions about whether an environmental assessment was sufficient, but DOI leadership insisted on the expedited review. In an email obtained by POLITICO Magazine, the assistant manager for the BLM Arctic district office described the effort as “fast paced and often times confusing.” Another BLM employee who worked on the assessment told me they had “never seen something so off the rails in my life.” The lack of transparency has been compounded by a culture of fear and intimidation, according to current employees of Fish and Wildlife and BLM; even former employees are reluctant to speak on the record because they believe that doing so could jeopardize the careers of their colleagues. “We barely can talk about ANWR with each other,” one BLM Alaska employee told me.
And, predictably, it’s these very failures that are cited by Biden’s Interior Department in today’s decision, calling the 2021 lease sale “seriously flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies” and noting that the Interior Secretary has the power to cancel or suspend oil and gas leases that violate the law.
The Biden administration’s opposition to drilling in ANWR shouldn’t be a surprise, and they would likely have explored many avenues for halting the project. Still, the Trump administration’s haste and flagrant disregard for the process made it that much easier for the Biden administration to pull the plug.
Or, as one observer told me: “We are blessed by the incompetence of our enemies.”
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