By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday said it would suspend oil and gas leases that were handed out in an Alaska wildlife refuge during the final days of the Trump administration pending an environmental review.
The action reverses one of former President Donald Trump’s signature efforts to expand fossil fuel development in the United States, and delivers a setback to the Alaskan state government which had hoped opening the enormous refuge would help revive its declining oil industry.
Trump’s Interior Department sold the leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in January over the objections of environmentalists and indigenous groups. During his campaign, Biden had pledged to protect the 19.6 million-acre pristine habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said Biden was “grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior,” and said the Trump administration’s hastily-held auction of oil and gas leases in the refuge “could have changed the character of this special place forever.”
Biden’s Interior Department said it had notified the leaseholders, which include an Alaska state agency.
The review, which will examine “legal deficiencies” in the previous administration’s environmental analysis of leasing in ANWR, will determine whether the leases would stand, be voided, or be subject to mitigation measures, the statement said.
The ANWR leasing program is already the subject of lawsuits by environmental and indigenous groups that allege the Trump administration violated federal law by performing a faulty environmental analysis that failed to adequately consider its impact on wildlife and native people.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which holds seven of the ANWR leases, said it was disappointed by the decision and did not have any reason to believe that the auction’s underlying environmental analysis was inadequate.
“I don’t know what they are referring to,” Alan Weitzner, AIDEA’s executive director, said in an interview.
‘EVERY MEANS NECESSARY’
The action is the latest effort by Biden to restrict oil and gas activities on public lands, part of a broader agenda to decarbonize the U.S. economy and combat climate change. He has also paused all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, source of a quarter of the nation’s petroleum.
Alaska officials expressed outrage, saying leasing in ANWR was required by a 2017 law that opened up oil and gas development in the region.
“Our leases for oil and gas are valid and cannot be taken away by the federal government,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement. “I oppose this assault on Alaska’s economy and will use every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach.”
Columbia Law School professor Michael Gerrard called the move “prudent” given the questions around whether the leases were lawfully granted, but said the matter may just end up in court.
“At the end of this review, they will make a final decision, and whoever is unhappy with that decision at that time may decide to institute litigation,” Gerrard said.
Alaska-based green and indigenous groups that sued to stop the lease sale cheered the move.
“We look forward to working with the administration on stronger action to correct this unlawful leasing program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands,” groups including Alaska Wilderness League and the Gwich’in Steering Committee said in a joint statement.
The first sale of tracts in the refuge, held two weeks before Trump left office in January, received limited interest from the oil and gas industry and generated high bids of just $14.4 million. Leases were ultimately issued for nine tracts covering 430,000 acres (1,740 square kilometers), Interior said.
Knik Arm Services LLC and Regenerate Alaska Inc, which each hold one lease, were not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Alistair Bell, Aurora Ellis and Marguerita Choy)