News Release

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee

Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) today praised the Biden administration’s decision to suspend the oil and gas leases issued in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge), which was opened to drilling by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The news was first reported by Politico yesterday afternoon.

The Trump administration sold and issued the leases on a needlessly rapid schedule, without adequate review of public input or environmental impacts, and those leases are now being challenged in court through multiple lawsuits. Plaintiffs include numerous environmental organizations; a coalition of 15 states alleging violations of multiple federal laws; and the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to preserving tribal culture.

The 2017 law directed the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Land Management, to conduct at least two area-wide leasing sales of not less than 400,000 acres each, within the Coastal Plain of the Refuge. The Trump administration’s hastily held lease sale generated just $14.4 million, half of which will go to the federal government – a tiny fraction of the $1.1 billion over a decade that oil industry boosters were predicting and a strong sign that the years-long push to drill in the Refuge was never really about economic productivity.

Katharine MacGregor, Trump’s deputy interior secretary, called the effort “a success” despite its shaky legal foundation and total failure to match economic projections.

“The Trump administration tried to hand fossil fuel companies our public lands as fast as possible with no questions asked, and then when the benefits didn’t materialize, suddenly there was no explanation,” Grijalva said. “Drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge has been an article of faith with Republicans in Washington for so long that the serious environmental consequences and lack of economic rationale stopped mattering, and the push to drill became a scam. Suspending these leases to review all the laws the Trump administration ignored is the honest and responsible thing to do, and the Biden administration deserves credit for taking the right step in a timely way. I’m confident that after a thorough review is complete, the Biden administration will come to the only possible conclusion – that the leases should be voided.”

The environmental impact of the infrastructure needed to extract oil in the region would be enormously destructive to multiple species, including caribou and polar bears. As a report from North Carolina State University noted in August of 2020, before the lease sale was held:

As part of its plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, the Interior Department will construct as many as four airstrips and major well pads, 175 miles of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site.

[…]

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1980 by Congress, provides habitat for a wide variety of animals, including 45 species of land and marine mammals, 36 species of fish, and more than 200 species of birds that come from six continents to breed, rest or feed from April to July. The refuge’s coastal plain — stretching north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean — is home to endangered polar bears and is the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), chair of the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, earlier this year reintroduced his Arctic Refuge Protection Act to remove the Arctic Refuge permanently from leasing consideration. A full list of the bill’s endorsers, House cosponsors and Senate companion sponsors is available here.

The multistate lawsuit includes five central allegations against the Interior Department, namely that it:

(1) failed to determine that the authorized leasing program is compatible with the purposes of the Arctic Refuge and unlawfully prioritized oil and gas development over the Refuge’s conservation purposes, in violation of the Refuge Administration Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA);

(2) failed to consider a reasonable range of program alternatives including an alternative that serves the conservation purposes of the Arctic Refuge, in violation of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedures Act;

(3) failed to take a hard look at impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, in violation of National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act;

(4) failed to take a hard look at impacts on migratory birds, in violation of National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act; and

(5) adopted an unlawful interpretation of the Tax Act contrary to Congress’s restrictions on development in the Arctic Refuge, in violation of that Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva