On his last full day in office, in one of the last acts of his dying Administration, President Donald Trump approved a lease-sale for oil and drilling in the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
A besotted lover of Big Oil to the bitter end, the President wanted to give his fossil fuel buddies one last eye-watering prize.
At the time, the move was met by outrage from environmentalists and First Nations, who have fought for some four decades to protect America’s last true wilderness, home to porcupine caribou, bears, and many migratory species, and is seen as the country’s Crown Jewels or America’s Serengeti.
And while the sale largely flopped as investors and companies stayed away, it still left the door open to drilling in the Refuge. Yet for once, the big banks had refused to entertain drilling in ANWR with six major U.S. banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America — all refusing to finance drilling.
And now in the latest twist to the ANWR saga, President Biden’s Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, has ordered a new environmental review of the leases handed out by Trump, claiming that in their haste to please their buddies, the Trump administration did an “insufficient analysis” of drilling’s impact on the land and on the climate.
The Directive, signed by Haaland, said that in light of so-called “legal deficiencies” underlying the Trump drilling program, including the “inadequacy of the environmental review,” the Secretary of the Interior “shall place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in ANWR.”
It added that “the Secretary shall review the program and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.”
The news was welcomed by First Nations and environmental groups as a first step but said they would continue to press the leases be cancelled altogether: “The Gwich’in Nation is grateful and heartened by the news that the Biden administration has acted again on its commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” a Gwich’in committee said in a statement.
And in response to the announcement, my old colleague at OCI, Janet Redman, now the Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director, said: “The disastrous idea to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas corporations was never anything more than an eleventh hour favor to fossil fuel billionaires from the previous administration.”
Redman continued: “It made zero sense then and as demand for oil continues to plummet and climate impacts wreak havoc across the world it makes even less sense now. Scientists are clear that 100 percent of Arctic oil and gas must stay in the ground if we’re going to limit global warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius outlined in the Paris agreement.”
But it is not all good news: As the Washington Post noted that the ANWR move came “just days after the Justice Department defended another drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, underscores the balancing act the new administration aims to strike as it slows fossil fuel development on public lands.”
Many people will feel that in a climate emergency, the balancing needs to top towards radical climate action. The pressure will now be on Biden to cancel other fossil leases and transition to 100 percent renewables.