Interior freezes drilling plans in ANWR

The U.S. Department of the Interior is suspending any leases to drill for oil or natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were sold in January 2021, days before the end of the Trump administration.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a Secretarial Order last week preventing the directors of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from taking any further action regarding the leasing program until its environmental impacts are further studied. The leases sold in January will not be canceled, but will be put on hold until the environmental review of drilling along the refuge’s coastal plain is complete. In the final weeks of the Trump administration, the BLM issued 10-year leases covering more than 430,000 acres of the refuge.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain stretches 1.6 million acres along the edge of the 19.6 million-acre refuge. It’s an ecologically sensitive area, home to a wide variety of wildlife, including polar bears (Ursus maritimus), numerous bird species and caribou (Rangifer tarandus). This area, along with Ivvavik National Park in Canada, serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, the largest herd in the refuge and one of the largest in North America.

After decades of being closed to development, the refuge’s coastal plain was made available for leasing through the 2017 tax bill, via a provision championed by Alaskan members of Congress. That provision called for two lease sales of at least 400,000 acres within 10 years. The first sale was to be done within four years of the bill’s passage.

In an executive order issued shortly after assuming the presidency, Biden ordered a temporary freeze of oil and gas drilling along the refuge’s coastal plain, citing concerns about the environmental analysis conducted by the previous administration. While many environmental groups are encouraged by Interior’s announcement to continue the freeze until an analysis is conducted, it is unclear if the current administration can actually fully dismantle the refuge’s new drilling program, as it was created by Congress.

The Wildlife Society recognizes energy development is an integral part of modern society, but seeks to minimize its impacts on wildlife. The Society’s position statement on energy development calls for minimizing and mitigating the impacts of energy development thorough natural resource inventories before energy development and cooperation between energy developers and natural resource agencies.

Header Image: A new U.S. Department of the Interior order puts a hold on all new drilling in the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, until the environmental impacts of the program can be further studied. Credit: Danielle Brigida