The Biden administration canceled several oil and gas leases issued in early 2021 to an Alaskan state economic development agency, it announced Wednesday.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) rescinded the seven 10-year leases — spanning 365,775 acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — held by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and supported by a wide range of stakeholders, including lawmakers and Native Alaskans. The leases were issued by the Trump administration in one of its final actions.
"This latest action by the Department of the Interior against Alaska and Native Alaskans living inside ANWR shows arbitrary disregard for federal law, based on campaign trail rhetoric. Campaign promises are not enough to justify this agency action," AIDEA Executive Director Randy Ruaro told Fox News Digital. "Under the law, Interior must present real facts and reasons that support this reversal in position."
"Interior’s action leaves AIDEA one choice, we have to go to court to protect our rights in the ANWR leases," he continued. "This time, we will ask the court to allow us to conduct discovery that could include taking the deposition of Biden’s messenger, [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland, and possibly other administration officials involved, so the real motives are made public."
The DOI also issued a proposal to block off 13 million acres of land across the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR), an area in North Slope Borough, Alaska, set aside by Congress for resource development, and an additional 2.8 million of acres in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska, from oil and gas leasing.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said canceling AIDEA's leases and blocking off acreage in the NPR and Beaufort Sea would help the U.S. fight climate change.
"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," Haaland said in a statement. "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," she continued.
Under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the DOI was ordered to establish and administer an oil and gas program in ANWR. Then, years after the bill was passed, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled the final leasing program and ultimately held its lease sale for hundreds of thousands of acres of fossil fuel leases in ANWR in January 2021.
One day before President Biden's inauguration, the DOI awarded nine leases: one to Australian oil company 88 Energy, one to a tiny Alaskan firm Knik Arm Services and seven to AIDEA.
"Having just spent more than a month home in communities across our state, there is palpable anger and frustration among Alaskans about the Biden administration’s unrelenting assault on our economy and our ability to lawfully access our lands," Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Fox News Digital in a statement Wednesday.
"This war on Alaska is devastating for not only Alaska but also the energy security of the nation," Sullivan said. "This unlawful cancelation of AIDEA’s ANWR leases today now brings us to 55 executive orders and actions specifically targeting Alaska since President Biden assumed office."
Sullivan added that the Biden administration's actions targeting energy production in his state would have a chilling effect on future investment.
"The administration is putting on a legal charade by pretending to follow the law that requires them to hold lease sales with no intent of ever actually honoring those leases — daring any investor to waste their time and money," the Alaska Republican continued.
"Not only is this an affront to the rule of law, it’s also a grave injustice to the Inupiat people of the North Slope, especially the people of Kaktovik — the only village in ANWR. As evidenced by this and so many of the administration’s actions negatively impacting the Alaska Native people, the idea of ‘equity’ is being exploited as a hollow political soundbite."
After campaigning on blocking drilling in ANWR during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 27, 2021, pausing new oil and gas leasing on federal lands as part of his climate agenda. On June 1, 2021, the DOI suspended the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the ANWR — under which AIDEA was awarded its seven leases — pending completion of a new environmental analysis.
Both 88 Energy and Knik Arm Services pulled out of their leases following Biden's actions.
In November 2021, AIDEA filed a lawsuit challenging the DOI's action, arguing the program was clearly mandated by Congress. AIDEA was joined in the lawsuit by the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., North Slope Borough and Arctic Slope Regional Corp.
However, an Obama-appointed judge threw the case out last month, earning rebuke from Alaska's entire congressional delegation, including Sullivan; Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy; and leaders in Alaska's North Slope like Nagruk Harcharek, the president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, and Charles Lampe, the president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp.
"I am frustrated by yet another judicial ruling that overrides congressional intent," Democratic Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola said at the time. "I firmly support Alaska’s ability to explore and develop its natural resources in order to create jobs and lower energy prices. This area was specifically set aside for leases by Congress in 2017, which were finally issued in 2021."
"This decision dismisses the needs and interests of those who call this region home, harming the self-determination of the Iñupiat of the North Slope," Harcharek added.
According to AIDEA, the non-wilderness section of the ANWR where its leases are located contains approximately 7.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The agency said a large share of economic development and jobs supported across Alaska’s indigenous and rural North Slope communities are related to oil and gas development.
In addition, taxes on oil and gas activities in Alaska provide key funding for communities statewide and for government services, schools, housing, health care and emergency services.
Environmental groups have opposed all drilling in ANWR over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and potential impacts on wildlife in the region.
Reuters first reported the DOI's action earlier Wednesday.