Leases Have Been Canceled In The Arctic Refuge–Now What?

The Announcement Is Great News For The Refuge–But The Fight Is Far From Over

Written by Laurence Fox, Campaigns Coordinator |  September 25, 2023

On September 6, the Biden Administration canceled the seven remaining– and much-contested– oil and gas leases within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Undeniably, this is a huge win not only for the Arctic Refuge itself, but for Gwich’in on both sides of the border, their conservation allies, and the thousands of animals–caribou, polar bears, Arctic foxes and 200-some species of migratory birds, to name a few—which breed, feed, and live on the coastal plains. It’s the strongest move towards protection for the Arctic Refuge–and the Porcupine caribou– since the Trump Administration first announced it was reopening the region to oil and gas extraction in 2017.

Wildlife of the Arctic Refuge. Photos by Malkolm Boothroyd.

So. What does that mean?

It means celebrations are in order, along with gratitude for the decision, the political will behind it, and the tireless advocacy spearheaded by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which made it possible.

It also means that, although we may have won this particular battle, the work is far from over.

The fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been long, fraught, and complicated. What we need to understand right now is that just because these leases have been repealed does not mean the Arctic Refuge is protected – it just means these specific leases in these particular places are no longer on the table at this time, with the previously agreed upon buyers.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into action by the Trump Administration in 2017 not only mandated the sale of the oil and gas leases within the 1002 area of the Arctic Refuge–smack dab in the heart of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd–but requires the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to “establish and administer a competitive oil and gas program for the leasing, development, production, and transportation of oil and gas in and from” the region. The Act also requires that no less than two lease sales be held. As long as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is in effect, those sales must take place. The Department of the Interior is obligated to hold them.

What that really means is that, unless something dramatically changes–and fast– it’s not a matter of if another lease sale will be held, but when.

Once we’ve all taken a breather, the next matter to turn our attention to is the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), which was mandated to address the noted flaws and blatant favouritism the previous Environmental Impact Statement showed towards oil and gas development. The report will help determine where, when, and how aggressively drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge will take place, and heavily impact the number, type, and environmental oversights in place on the next round of leases.

Porcupine Caribou Herd in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Porcupine caribou herd. Photo by Peter Mather.

In the coming weeks, we at CPAWS are going to be diving deep into the SEIS to understand what, exactly, this second round of environmental assessments has found–and if it’s any more sound than the original. Please be patient with us while we do this, because at nearly 700 pages, this report is huge (and that’s just Volume One). Sign up for our newsletter to stay updated.

Repealing these leases is a win in that it rights a wrong; realistically, however, we’ve simply broken even. Our own complacency is the strongest weapon that those who would see the Arctic Refuge torn up and exploited for oil and gas extraction in the name of profit have to wield against its would-be protectors. To make real gains, we need to do more than hold our position–we need to push back against the front lines. If we learned anything from the decades-long battle to protect the Peel Watershed, it’s that until we have legislation that fully, permanently, and legally protects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas extraction now and into the future, we’re not done fighting.

The lease cancellation is a welcome gift–one that could become a Trojan horse, however, if we don’t continue to work together to see the Arctic Refuge permanently protected from oil and gas extraction.

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