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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The Biden administration has announced plans to reduce the area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska available for oil and gas development. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the reserve, which is located on the western North Slope of Alaska, contains 8.7 billion barrels of developable oil.

The Bureau of Land Management Monday announced it is reverting from a 2020 Trump-era action plan to an Obama-era 2013 plan and incorporating some stipulations in the Trump administration’s plan. The stipulations include "certain more protective lease stipulations and operating procedures for threatened and endangered species."

The change leaves almost 12 million acres of land, or 52 percent of the petroleum reserve available for development. The Trump era plan allowed oil and gas development of 18.6 million acres, or 82 percent of the reserve.

Of its Monday decision, the bureau stated, “This decision reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s priority of reviewing existing oil and gas programs to ensure balance on America’s public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations.”.

The Alaska congressional delegation, all Republicans, objected to the bureau’s Monday decision saying the Biden administration has singled out Alaska by removing millions of acres of land from development in a state that already has tens of millions of acres of land in federal protected status. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy also raised objections to the bureau’s decision.

The Alaska delegation had earlier called the opening of the reserve for development good news.

The Native for-profit Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (a federally recognized tribe), and the North Slope Borough oppose the bureau’s decision.

They said in a statement that the latest strategy “diminishes Alaska Native self-determination by ignoring the needs, concerns and input of the local people who live, work and subsist in and around the NPR-A.”

They said the 2020 plan was developed in partnership with North Slope tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and the borough.

“At the urging of these local and Alaska Native stakeholders, the 2020 Integrated Action Plan included provisions that would have ensured future economic development opportunities for the region, allowed for community infrastructure needs to be considered in the NPR-A and required that areas identified by local and Alaska Native entities be excluded from future leasing. Changes the North Slope Iñupiat fought to include. (Monday’s) decision by the Biden Administration to ignore the needs and concerns of the North Slope Iñupiat is in direct contradiction to its top public policy goals, to advance racial equity and support underserved communities,” stated the three.

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Morrie Lemen, executive director of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, said the Secretary of Interior violated the department's guidelines and an executive order on consultation with tribes. He said the decision directly impacts the livelihoods of tribal members. “This is further proof that the Biden Administration prioritizes its relationships with environmental organizations over the sovereignty of Alaska Natives,” Lemen said.

Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Water Wildlife Campaign, said in a statement, “We applaud the Biden administration for walking back Trump’s disastrous assault on Alaska’s public lands. After a year of devastating extreme weather events and unprecedented high temperatures in Alaska, the last thing we need is a massive expansion of oil drilling in the Arctic.

“But in order to achieve the administration’s ambitious climate goals, it’s not enough to go back to the Obama-era status quo. We urge the Biden administration to build on this progress by acting immediately to phase out all new leasing for fossil fuels on our public lands,” Ritzman said.

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“The Biden administration needs to do much more to protect the Arctic from the oil industry,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is better than the Trump-era plan it replaces but far short of what’s needed to address the climate emergency. No amount of mitigation measures can change the fact that more Arctic drilling means more climate chaos, more oil spills and more harm to local communities and polar bears. President Biden can’t say he’s addressing the climate crisis while allowing federal agencies to auction off more public lands to the oil industry.”

The Biden administration earlier had come under criticism from environmental groups, which accused the president of failing to meet promises to reduce fossil fuel use. 

The price of Alaska crude oil has hit a 7-year high at $86.78 per barrel, nearly double what it was last year. Still, high production costs compared to lower 48 fracking have contributed to a continuing decline in Alaska production.

The bureau said it will issue a new record of decision after consultations with communities in Alaska are completed.

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This article was updated to remove references to areas outside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska which were not affected by the Biden administration's actions on Jan. 10, 2022. 

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