The Biden-Harris administration in the US has unveiled significant measures today aimed at safeguarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) and over 13 million acres within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A).

Within the Arctic Refuge, Department of the Interior (DOI) has given the green light for the cancellation of the remaining seven oil and gas leases that were granted by the previous administration for the Coastal Plain. These leases had been put on hold in June 2021, following the issuance of Secretary’s Order (S.O.) 3401, which identified ‘multiple legal deficiencies in the underlying record supporting the leases’.

Furthermore, the Department has put forward new regulations today for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), aiming to provide comprehensive protection for the over 13 million acres of Special Areas within the reserve. Simultaneously, these regulations are designed to support the subsistence activities of Alaska Native communities. This proposed rule, which was initially outlined in March 2023, supplements President Biden’s efforts to safeguard extensive acreages of Arctic lands and waters. These efforts include the withdrawal of approximately 2.8 million acres in the Beaufort Sea, effectively rendering the entire US Arctic Ocean off-limits to new oil and gas leasing.

Secretary Haaland said: “With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem.

“President Biden is delivering on the most ambitious climate and conservation agenda in history. The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations.”

After the enactment of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (Tax Act), the prior administration conducted an oil and gas lease sale in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge on 6 January 2021. During this sale, 10-year leases were granted for nine tracts covering more than 430,000 acres. However, on 21 January 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13990, instructing the Department to reevaluate the oil and gas leasing activities in the Refuge, specifically in light of perceived legal deficiencies within the programme.

Since then, two of the previously issued leases have been cancelled and refunded upon the request of the lessees. However, seven leases, all held by a single lessee, still encompassed 365,000 acres in the Coastal Plain.

Under the authority vested in the Secretary of the Interior, oil and gas leases that are found to violate statutory or regulatory requirements can be cancelled or suspended. The recently released draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has provided substantial evidence supporting the Department’s conclusion that the 2021 lease sale was deeply flawed. These flaws included inadequate analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, failure to adequately explore a reasonable range of alternatives, insufficient quantification of downstream greenhouse gas emissions, and misinterpretation of the Tax Act. Consequently, Secretary Haaland has determined that the leases issued during the previous administration for the Arctic Refuge will be cancelled.

Stretching from the northwestern slope of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Coast, the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) covers approximately 23 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These lands have been inhabited by Tribal Nations since time immemorial, with over 40 Indigenous communities continuing to rely on subsistence practices within the reserve. These activities include the harvesting of caribou, shore and waterbirds, as well as various fish and wildlife species. Many of these communities primarily sustain themselves through the food resources obtained from the NPR-A.

A 45-day public review and comment period for the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) concerning the Coastal Plain will be initiated. In the development of this draft, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) engaged with a wide array of stakeholders and relied on the best accessible data and scientific information, including Indigenous Knowledge.