The Biden administration is canceling the only seven oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The leases were originally issued by the Trump administration over the protests of environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups who argue the region should be protected as a critical wildlife habitat.

In January 2021, nine leases covering more than 430,000 acres were issued by the Trump administration; the Biden administration has already canceled and refunded two of the leases at the request of the leaseholders. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned economic development corporation, owned the remaining seven leases — this action applies to those tracts.

"With today's action no one will have rights to drill oil in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth," said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during a call with reporters announcing the move.

The refuge, commonly referred to as ANWR, is a habitat for wildlife, including grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

Haaland said the environmental reviews done under the Trump administration to allow the lease sales were "fundamentally flawed and based on a number of fundamental legal deficiencies."

According to a Biden White House release, this includes failure to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives and properly quantify downstream greenhouse gas emissions, as well as failure to properly interpret the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, the law that required Trump to hold the oil and gas lease sale.

The White House also announced new protections for millions of acres across Alaska's North Slope and in the Arctic Ocean. Over 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a vast swath of land on Alaska's North Slope, will be off limits to oil and gas drilling, following up on a proposal earlier this year.

While the new regulations will block new oil and gas leases in the protected areas, they will not block the development of existing leases in the NPR-A, including ConocoPhillips' controversial Willow Project.

The administration said Wednesday's announcement "does not impact valid existing rights" from developing leases.

The administration is also required to hold at least one more lease sale in ANWR. Senior administration officials said they "intend to comply with the law" in regards to a mandate from the 2017 tax law that requires another lease sale by December 2024.

Alaska oil drilling projects have been top of mind for both the administration and voters this year. The latest announcement comes several months after Biden approved the Willow project, the biggest new oil development in Alaska in decades, resulting in blowback to the administration.

Most recently, Elise Joshi, a climate activist with the group Gen Z for Change, interrupted White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre to confront the administration specifically with concerns about the Willow project.

But the administration insisted the new protections are separate from decisions about the Willow project.

"These are two entirely different processes," a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

Its approval has raised concerns from other young voters, who see climate as a more important electoral issue than their older counterparts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.