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After 35-year battle, Biden cancels all remaining oil and gas drilling leases in the Alaskan Arctic

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

person looks up at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge // Image Credit: Steven Chase, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

  • For at least the last 35 years the Gwich'in nation of Alaska and northern Canada have fought to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling that would not only further emissions and exacerbate climate change but disrupt the caribou.

  • The ANWR serves as the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou, which every spring, brings 40,000 more caribou into the world on the refuge. For thousands of years, the Gwich'in people have migrated with them.

  • The Gwich'in continue to rely on the caribou but also feel that it is their duty to protect them. On the frontlines of the battle has been the Gwich'in steering committee.

  • Now, after a three-decade-long battle with multiple administrations, the Biden administration has canceled all seven remaining oil and gas drilling leases on the ANWR.

  • Still, groups like the Gwich'in Steering Committee and the Sierra Club urge more needs to be done for its protection, such as declaring the refuge a national monument.

In June 1988 the Gwich'in nation of Alaska and northern Canada came together in a huge gathering for the first time in 100 years — urgency catalyzed by the question of oil development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): a collage of taiga, tundra, and vast inland boreal forest that serves as pristine porcupine caribou calving ground on the northern tip of Alaska that up until that time, had never been touched by an oil rig.

Every spring, the porcupine caribou, a subspecies of reindeer, birth their calves, releasing a new generation of 40,000 into the Arctic. And, according to Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, via a short documentary produced by Patagonia, for over 40,000 years, the Gwich'in have migrated with them.

“At that meeting, they decided that, for certain, our fate is tied to the health and wellbeing of the porcupine caribou herd and that we’ve had this spiritual relationship for thousands of years and that we had to stand strong on protecting this place,” Princess Daazhraii Johnson of the Steering Committee said in the documentary that shed light on the ongoing battle.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed at that meeting in 1988 and now, after a long battle, three and a half decades later, the Biden administration has canceled all remaining oil and gas leases on the ANWR.

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop.
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. // Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“There have been times when broke down crying, walking those hard marble floors in Washington D.C. because we shouldn’t even have to be fighting for our human rights in this manner,” Johnson added, saying that the community, to this day, relies on the caribou herd.

“It’s a human rights issue, it’s a food security issue for the Gwich'in communities, for the Gwich'in nation and that is why we’ve been so forthright over a 30-year period of time now trying to protect this place.”

While the battle to drill in the ANWR has been ongoing since the ‘80s, the seven remaining leases canceled by the Biden administration were established during the Trump era, despite protests from environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups, like the Gwich’in Steering Committee, who argue the region should be protected as a critical wildlife habitat.

Previously, the administration canceled two of the original nine leases that covered 430,000 acres of the Alaskan tip, and while the action taken by the Biden administration does not reverse the controversial Willow project, the biggest new oil development in Alaska in decades, it can prevent thousands of acres of drilling that would be comparable, if not worse, than the size and scope of Willow in terms of fossil fuel emissions and disturbing wildlife.

caribou antlers
Caribou Shed Their Antlers Annually; They Can Be Found Almost Anywhere on the North Slope // Image Credit: Dennis Cowals // U.S. National Archives

In addition to blocking these projects, the administration's efforts, which were announced on Wednesday, the Department of Interior announced new protections for millions of acres across Alaska's North Slope and into the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea, putting the red tape around 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and blocking land the size of Indiana from drilling. This action follows up on a proposal from earlier this year.

“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,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

The additional protections not only help protect the caribou’s migratory patterns but also that of grizzly, polar bears, and birds, all of which are essential to the biodiversity of the region. Halting drilling also makes progress toward Biden’s goal of cutting emissions 50-52 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 under the Paris Climate Accord.

As an analysis by Yale Environment360 shows, if drilled the refuge would produce a "double dose" of carbon because the area began to form 50 million years ago and the carbon has been locked away since, on top of additional carbon locked into the permafrost. With their grazing, the caribou, which have been around since the late Pleistocene Epoch, tens of thousands of years ago, help keep the carbon stored away.

In fact, according to Yale's analysis, estimates indicate that 10 to 20 pounds of carbon per square foot resides within the uppermost 10 feet of the permafrost. That's like consuming, at most, a gallon of gas per square foot. When the refuge spans millions of acres, it's an understatement to say that's a lot of gas.

According to the Steering Committee on top of being “economically infeasible,” the “cancellation of these leases is a step to rectify attempted violence against our people, the animals, and sacred land.” However, Demientieff remains cautious, calling for increased protections.

“We know that our sacred land is only temporarily safe from oil and gas development,” she said in a statement. “We urge the administration and our leaders in Congress to repeal the oil and gas program and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge.”

What permanent protection would look like is the declaration of a national monument in the ANWR, which various environmental groups have been advocating for since the Obama administration, the Clinton administration, and even since it was named a refuge during the Carter administration.

Like that bestowed upon places like the Grand Canyon and the geysers of Yellowstone, a national monument status grants historical wildlands permanent protection by Congress or by the president through the use of the Antiquities Act, meaning that if granted, the drilling would never again be possible in ANWR.

 Migrating caribou in the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain.
Migrating caribou in the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain. // Image Credit: Gary Brassh (National Wildlife Federation)

According to the groups, it’s critical because per a 2017 law, by December 2024, the administration will have to hold a lease sale, which officials say they intend to comply with.

That’s why, as Mike Scott, Sierra Club's National Oil and Gas Campaign Manager explained in a statement, “We can’t stop here if we are going to address the climate crisis in the Arctic. The climate goals President Biden has set are necessary and ambitious, and massive oil and gas projects like Willow only put us further from achieving them.”

"Today’s announcement shows the Biden Administration can act to protect vital ecosystems and the people who depend on them, but it must do more. That includes establishing a climate test on future oil and gas projects in the Arctic and elsewhere.”


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