Interior won’t ease Arctic drilling restrictions

The U.S. Department of the Interior will not pursue the previous administration’s plan to ease restrictions on exploratory drilling in the Arctic.

In 2020, during the previous administration, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced revisions to the Arctic exploratory drilling rule. The rule, created in 2016, set requirements for oil and gas exploration on the Arctic outer continental shelf, including provisions requiring oil spill prevention and response procedures specifically developed for the unique conditions there. The revisions proposed in 2020 would have eased restrictions to allow operators greater flexibility.

The proposed rule was released in December 2020, with a 30-day comment period. It was not finalized before the new administration took office in late January and began reviewing all recent regulatory proposals. The comment period on the proposal was reopened in February for 60 days. Interior’s announcement now means that the draft rule will not be finalized, and the 2016 rule will remain in place — continuing the more stringent safeguards around exploratory oil and gas operations.

“The Department of the Interior is committed to a careful, responsible approach in managing America’s offshore resources,” said Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry in a statement released to E&E News. “The Arctic exploratory drilling regulations released in 2016 are critical to ensuring adequate safety and environmental protections for this sensitive ecosystem and Alaska Native subsistence activities.”

The proposal to revoke the explanatory drilling rule garnered less than 30 comments, most of which were in opposition to the rule change. Environmental groups, such as the Alaska Wilderness League, warned about the effect of drilling on Arctic wildlife such as polar bears (Ursus maritimus). The Northwest Arctic Borough, the local tribal government, commented that the proposed revisions would, “weaken protections to the Arctic ecosystem, which the residents and communities of the Borough proudly rely on … for food, cultural identity  and economic sustainability.”

In the final days of his administration, President Obama issued a moratorium on offshore Arctic Ocean oil and gas drilling, which was revoked by executive order by President Trump in 2017. That order was challenged in court, with a district court invalidating the executive order in 2019. That decision was upheld on appeal in April.

The Biden administration has reviewed and reversed several environmental proposals put forth by the Trump administration, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act incidental take rule. The Biden administration also temporarily blocked all oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge through an executive order.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Energy Development and Wildlife.

Header Image: The administration has shelved a proposal to loosen restrictions on drilling in the Arctic. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS