Arctic Refuge infographic_Final

The United States has a new President. What does that mean for the Arctic Refuge?

Written by Malkolm Boothroyd, Campaigns Coordinator

The Trump administration did one big favour for the Arctic Refuge. 

That felt really weird to write. 

This is the same administration that we’re suing over their illegal environmental review in the Arctic Refuge, the same one that tried to approve seismic testing in critical caribou and polar bear habitat. The administration that fast tracked a lease sale in the Arctic Refuge in its final weeks in office. But this onslaught served an unintended purpose too—putting the Arctic Refuge top of mind, and making its protection a priority for President Biden.

For the last four years everybody’s focus has been about defending the Arctic Refuge against a deluge of development, and it’s exciting that we can finally start working for protection. The new administration has already announced that it will place “a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Here some of the other paths towards protecting the Arctic Refuge.

President Biden’s Day One action to suspend leasing activities in the Arctic Refuge sets an example the new leadership at the Department of Interior can follow. The department could reject the applications to conduct seismic testing on the Coastal Plain. They could investigate impropriety in the issuance of leases following this month’s lease sale. The new administration could also conduct a review of the entire oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge and take a proper look at the ecological, human rights and climate issues that their predecessors ignored. 

The results of the senate elections in Georgia mean that there’s now a pathway to repealing Section 20001 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—the clause that opened the Coastal Plain of Arctic Refuge to leasing in 2017. This could happen through a process called budget reconciliation, since budget-related legislation only needs fifty one senate votes to pass, not sixty. 

Scrapping Section 20001 would return the Coastal Plain to the state of semi-protection it occupied for decades, off-limits for leasing, but at the whim of future Congresses. Permanently protecting the Arctic Refuge would require sixty votes to clear the Senate, which remains a high bar.

Unfortunately repealing Section 20001 wouldn’t deal with the leases that have already been issued. However, the lawsuit that the Gwich’in Steering Committee, CPAWS Yukon and a dozen other groups launched last August could help with that. We’ve asked the court to invalidate the previous administration’s environmental review, and any leases or permits that stemmed from that review. If a judge sides with us, they could void the leases. 

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is the largest leaseholder, but under the terms of the lease sale it must pay $4.8 million a year to hold onto its leases. It’s clear to pretty much everybody that drilling in the Arctic Refuge is terrible business (why no major banks in Canada or the U.S. will ever fund development there, and why only two private companies showed up to the lease sale). Having to pay millions of dollars a year to sit on leases that almost nobody wants developed might snap the State of Alaska back to reality.

The Arctic Refuge has been under an immense threat for the past four years, but together we’ve managed to hold the line. Now the work to build back the protections for the Arctic Refuge begins.