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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

President Joe Biden put a hold on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic just hours after being inaugurated.

He signed an executive order Wednesday placing a temporary moratorium on all federal activities related to oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Just the day before, nine leases had been signed by the Trump administration, well ahead of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s 2024 deadline requiring two lease sales in the refuge.

Biden’s executive order raises questions about the permitting process for the leases, saying, “in light of the alleged legal deficiencies underlying the program, including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act … ”

The order directs the Interior secretary of to redo a major step to “as appropriate, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.” It notifies courts that the incoming attorney general may ask courts to put a hold on litigation related to oil and gas leasing in the refuge.

Biden also reinstated an Obama-era order withdrawing areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea from offshore oil and gas drilling and establishing the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge encompasses calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which includes some 200,000 animals. Pregnant females annually trek to the coastal plain of the refuge to give birth to as many as 40,000 calves.

The Gwich’in Athabascan people call the caribou calving grounds “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” meaning the sacred place where life begins.

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The Gwich’in Steering Committee represents Canadian and Alaskan Gwich’in. Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff said, “Mashi’ Choo, President Biden, the Gwich’in Nation is grateful to the President for his commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in’s way of life.”

Kaktovik, the only village within the refuge, and the other villages on the North Slope of Alaska, are predominantly Inupiat.

North Slope oil and gas development has been a boon for them and other local residents. North Slope Borough property tax revenues subsidize government services that would otherwise be beyond the reach of village economies. Borough services include search and rescue, water and sanitation, housing, wildlife management and Inupiat history, language and culture.

A handful of for-profit Native corporations, Inupiat and Athabascan, have voiced support for drilling in the refuge, saying it will provide much needed jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation’s Executive Vice President of External Affairs, Richard Glenn, Inupiat, stated, “Together with the other organizations of our region, we are working to assess the meaning and magnitude of the recent Executive and Secretarial Orders.

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“We continue to advocate for the responsible development of resources in our region – a position that has never changed,” Glenn said. “When we have assessed the orders and their impacts, we intend to work with the Biden administration in a way that best represents our tribes, communities, and shareholders.”

The refuge is home to other wildlife, including polar bears, moose, marine mammals, fish and more than 200 species of migratory and resident birds.

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, issued a statement saying, “our long national nightmare of environmental carnage ends today… Today’s executive order to stop the plundering of this national treasure is a critical first step toward what we hope will one day be the permanent protection of one of the last great expanses of untouched wilderness areas in America.”

President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara, said in a press release, “We applaud President Biden for taking these critical first steps on our long journey to rebuild our economy, revitalize frontline communities, improve our health, reduce pollution, restore our public lands, respect Indigenous communities, and protect our wildlife heritage.”

Alaska’s Congressional delegation and governor, all Republicans, criticized Biden’s actions in a prepared statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, “at a time when the United States, and especially Alaska, is struggling to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, I am astounded to see that the Biden administration’s ‘day one’ priority is [to] put our economy, jobs, and nation’s security at risk.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan said, “... in his inaugural address, President Biden called for national unity and healing. However, just hours earlier, his administration took their cues from radical environmentalists in issuing punitive and divisive actions against Alaska, many other resource development states, and whole sectors of our economy.”

Alaska Rep. Don Young called Biden’s action “not surprising, though no less disappointing, that …by reviewing federal rules that Alaska benefits from, and by placing a moratorium on energy development in ANWR, President Biden has surrendered to his party's environmental extremists.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy also stated he wasn’t surprised.

“As a candidate Joe Biden campaigned on stopping oil and gas development on federal lands. Make no mistake about it, President Biden appears to be making good on his promise to turn Alaska into a large national park,” Dunleavy said in a statement.

The president’s executive orders call for review or a halt to other federal actions of import to American Indians and Alaska Natives. He revoked the permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the Oglala Lakota say threatens their drinking water source. Biden called for review of a rule that opens the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska to logging, and for a look at the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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