The Biden administration has declared a ban on new oil and gas drilling across a substantial expanse of Alaska. This decision comes as President Joe Biden strives to reaffirm his commitment to environmental sustainability, following a controversial green light given to a ConocoPhillips project earlier this year in the same region.
The newly enacted prohibition encompasses a staggering 10.6 million acres (4.3 million hectares), equivalent to 40 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A). The NPR-A, a vital ecological area home to grizzly bears, polar bears, caribou, and countless migratory birds, holds immense importance for wildlife preservation.
President Biden expressed his perspective, stating, “Alaska is home to many of America’s most breathtaking natural wonders and culturally significant areas. As the climate crisis warms the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, we have a responsibility to protect this treasured region for all ages.”
In addition to this move, the US Interior Department has announced the cancellation of seven remaining oil and gas leases, initially authorized during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, situated east of the NPR-A on Alaska’s North Slope.
However, this decision has not been without its critics. Alaska’s two Republican senators have criticized the White House, asserting that it undermines US energy security.
Senator Lisa Murkowski labeled these decisions as “illegal, reckless, and defying all common sense.” Democrat Mary Peltola, a member of the House of Representatives, expressed her deep frustration with the Biden administration’s alleged failure to consider local interests.
The administration’s plan, while aiming to support the subsistence activities of Alaska Natives, has faced opposition from some members of the North Slope communities who were seeking economic opportunities through oil and gas leasing.
This latest move by President Biden follows earlier criticism from environmentalists for approving the massive ConocoPhillips oil project in the NPR-A, known as the Willow project. Estimated to cost between $8-10 billion, the Willow project had received authorization during the Trump administration and was subsequently backed by President Biden, leading to national protests led by youth activists.
This action also seeks to limit drilling activities in an additional 2.4 million acres of the NPR-A and prohibit drilling in approximately 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea, thus ensuring the entire US Arctic Ocean is off-limits to new oil and gas leasing, as stated by the Interior Department.
The NPR-A holds the distinction of being the largest tract of public land in the United States, established by former President Warren Harding in 1923. In 1976, Congress mandated that fossil fuel extraction in the region must be balanced against the imperative of environmental protection.
President Biden had made a campaign pledge to halt all new leasing on federal land and water, though it’s acknowledged that he faced challenges, particularly in court, led by Republican states. Nevertheless, his administration managed to pass the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), allocating nearly $400 billion to combat climate change. A study published in the journal Science in July indicated that the IRA would lead to substantial economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although it may fall slightly short of the US target to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030.