Two months after President Joe Biden suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the administration has ordered a new environmental review of drilling on its small northern patch opened for development.
The Interior Department announced its Notice of Intent Tuesday to launch a new review of leases in the 1.6 million-acre stretch along Alaska’s north coast, known as the “1002 area” about the size of South Carolina sitting on the 19.6 million-acre refuge. The patch is home to an estimated 4.3 to 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which would make it the most productive oil field in the country as gas prices reach seven-year highs.
Laura Daniel-Davis, the deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, wrote in Tuesday’s notice to be published in the federal register Wednesday seeks to “identify the significant issues, including any legal deficiencies in the Final EIS [Environmental Impact Statement].”
The supplemental review will re-examine potential risks presented by drilling to wildlife and ecosystems while considering new alternatives.
Such a review, however, has already been conducted under the process outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), held as the gold standard of assessing environmental impacts. The more than 500-page review published in September 2019 green-lit operations approved by President Donald Trump and Congress in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and was welcomed by local indigenous people who reside within the region open for drilling.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, however, railed the review as insufficient in June when she pulled the plug on operations. The secretary complained of a “failure to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives” in the process.
Rick Whitbeck, the Alaska state director for the non-profit energy group Power the Future, branded the administration’s move as heading down a “slippery slope” by declaring deficiencies in the environmental review process held as the “Magna Carta of environmental law,” under NEPA.
“Either it is or it isn’t,” Whitbeck said of NEPA’s credibility, arguing the post-review examination two years later could jeopardize any other environmentally approved process.
“It opens up the corps to additional scrutiny, with new litigation, and more NGOs to have carte blanche to criticize every decision made under NEPA from now to eternity,” Whitbeck told The Federalist.
The administration’s open animus towards fossil fuels has made opposition to drilling the nearly 20 million-acre refuge no surprise with a review process likely aimed to tank operations along the north slope altogether.
In the fight against Arctic drilling, Democrats have harnessed opposition by the Gwich’in tribe located hundreds of miles away from the proposed leases, whose opposition only rose in the immediate aftermath of exploration on their own lands finding no reserves. The Iñupiat however, who reside within the boundaries of the refuge once open for leasing, have lobbied for development on their own lands.