Pres. Biden cancels oil leasing where caribou and polar bears roam

How big of a deal is it that President Biden took action to protect the Arctic and the caribou and other wildlife that call it home?

Ken Madsen | Used by permission

Dyani Chapman, our state director in Alaska, discusses the president’s announcement to restrict oil drilling in the Arctic, and in so doing protect polar bears, caribou and migratory birds. She’s joined by Steve Blackledge, our senior conservation program director. 

Steve: Isn’t this great? The Biden administration canceled the remaining oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Area, and to state the obvious, there shouldn’t be oil drilling in a wildlife refuge. Do you agree that it’s significant? 

Dyani: It’s big, but the thing you’re not saying is that federal law still requires an oil leasing program in this wildlife refuge. Plus, keep in mind that it was a state owned corporation here in Alaska, not an oil company, that held the leases. It was always unclear what AIDEA (the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority) could or would do with those leases. My guess is that it hoped to sell them to an oil company (or contract with one), but oil companies weren’t biting. 

Steve: Oil companies don’t want to drill in the area? 

Dyani: For the moment, they’re not showing a lot of interest in the Refuge. 

Steve: So I imagine that elected officials in Alaska were ok with today’s news then. Right? 

Dyani: You know full well they’re not. The delegation put out a press release slamming it. But here’s the thing… The people of Alaska know that we’re heading toward a post-oil future, and Alaskans are mostly ok with that – at some point.  The timeline is up for debate, though. On one hand, we already have struggling fisheries and homes collapsing into the melting tundra. On the other hand, oil drilling is a big part of our story and the state’s income. We need a new economy, but since that’s a hard transition, our elected officials, for now, keep pushing things like drilling in the Arctic Refuge. However, when they see oil companies steering clear of the Refuge, it makes me wonder if today’s news is more irksome than it is infuriating for them.  A question for you… What comes next? 

Hans-Jurgen Mager |
white polar bear on snow covered ground during daytime

Steve: You already mentioned that the law requires an oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge. That law has been on the books since 2017. So for now, we’re stuck with this, as are the caribou that migrate across the region. The Biden administration is developing its plan for what the leasing program should look like. The leasing plan the Trump administration put out was rushed, flawed and turned a deaf ear to concerns about polar bears and other threatened or endangered species. I expect the Biden administration’s plan to be far more careful and prudent, and offer up smaller areas to leasing. The reality is you can’t drill near a denning polar bear and assume you’ll not harm or spook her or her cubs. Caribou are very skittish about industrial drilling operations, too. Clearly, we need to Congress to keep working on a bill to undo the language in a 2017 funding bill that requires drilling. That’s a big lift right now but it’s needed. What do Alaskans think of the rest of it?

Dyani: The rest of what? 

Steve: Let’s start with the administration’s proposal, announced at the same time as the lease cancellations, to protect 13 million acres of land west of the Arctic Refuge. 

Dyani: It’s important, and I think that many Alaskans can get behind it. Again, most Alaskans understand that we’re moving on from oil at some point, and this proposal essentially says, “Ok, we’ll protect a little more than half of the National Petroleum Reserve, while the rest is still available for drilling.” Many will find that reasonable. 

BLM | Public Domain
Teshekpuk Caribou, National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska

Steve: When I hear “National Petroleum Reserve,” I picture a giant, industrial area filled with concrete, oil derricks and tanker trucks. Is that what it’s like? 

Dyani: That’s far from reality. Mostly it’s full of wide open spaces, wildflowers, caribou, polar bears, ducks, geese, eiders and more. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s a shame that it has that name. The Western Arctic is the better name.

Steve: So it’s a big deal that the administration is moving to protect these 13 million acres? 

Dyani: Huge.

Steve: I agree. Earlier this year, the president announced plans to protect land surrounding the Grand Canyon by creating a new monument, and to protect waters in the pacific by designating a new marine sanctuary. My take is that this action is as big a deal as those. 

Dyani: That sounds about right. One last question… Will there ever be drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? 

Steve: The law currently requires it, and yet there have been so many back-and-forths over the decades on this topic – whether to drill or whether to protect. I’m holding out hope that our better angels win out. And of course we’ll be working to make sure that happens. 

Dyani: I hope the better angels do win. And if we get enough solar and wind power, plus heat pumps and zero emission cars – and make sure it’s happening in Alaska! – maybe those better angels can win out.

Dyani Chapman | TPIN
Dyani Chapman and her oldest nephew at Lowell Point.

Dyani Chapman

State Director, Alaska Environment Action

Dyani is the state director of Alaska Environment and runs campaigns to promote clean air and water, open spaces, and a livable climate in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage and loves to hike, ski and hang out with her family.

Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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