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Legal battle in Alaska continues over wildlife

The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Decades-long political and legal battles over drilling in America’s largest wildlife refuge took another turn when the Biden administration suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The move earlier this week was a blow to oil and gas proponents, who came as close as they ever have to starting a drilling program after the refuge was expanded 40 years ago to include the oil-rich coastal plain. The refuge was nearly opened to drilling in 1995 until President Clinton vetoed a bill sent to him by Congress.

President Joe Biden issued a temporary moratorium on drilling in the refuge on his first day in office. The executive order suggested a new environmental review was necessary to examine possible legal flaws in the program approved by Trump administration.

The review, conducted by the Department of Interior, found “defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases,” prompting Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to suspend them.

Drilling had yet to start in the pristine environment that’s home to polar bears, a huge caribou herd, millions of migratory birds and other wildlife.

Major oil companies sat out the lease sale, which produced leases on nine of the 22 tracts offered.

The Trump administration had approved the drilling program in a 2017 tax cut law enacted by congressional Republicans. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski played a key role in making sure the drilling provision was included.

The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, conducted the lease sale on Jan. 6, after Trump lost his reelection bid but had not yet left office. Results of the sale were released on Trump’s last full day in office, with some critics complaining of the rushed nature of the sale.

A state corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the major bidder, taking seven leases. Two small companies each won one.

“The Department of Interior has yet to provide AIDEA with documentation of any deficiencies that would warrant a suspension of leases,” the authority’s executive director, Alan Weitzner, said in a statement. “We’re extremely disappointed in the Biden administration’s effort to prevent Alaska from lawfully and responsibly developing its natural resources.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plan of the wildlife refuge has about 10.4 billion barrels of oil. By comparison, Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, is North America’s largest oil field at 25 billion barrels.

The refuge was created in 1960 in Alaska’s northeast corner. Congress in 1980 expanded it to 30,625 square miles (79,318 sq. kilometers), or about the size of South Carolina.

Congress also ordered that 2,300 square miles of the refuge’s coastal plain be studied for its natural resources.

Environmentalists and some Alaska Native leaders worry drilling will harm the land and Indigenous culture.

The coastal plain between the Arctic Ocean and the mountains of the Brooks Range is a winter home for pregnant polar bears. Also, the Porcupine caribou herd, which has nearly 200,000 animals that migrate between Alaska and Canada, uses the plain as a nursery.

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