Arctic Refuge Leasing Decision Due in July

By YERETH ROSEN
Alaska Beacon
    A Biden administration decision about how the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil-development program should proceed is expected in the third quarter of this year, a bit later than previously anticipated, according to a document filed in federal court on Friday.
    The status report was filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the Department of the Interior and its leader, Secretary Deb Haaland. It said a final supplemental environmental impact statement on refuge oil leasing is expected to be released in the second quarter of the year. A record of decision to follow that is expected in the third quarter, the status report said.

Caribou antlers dropped on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are seen on June 29, 2018. The Porcupine Caribou Herd uses the coastal plain for giving birth and nurturing calves. The Department of the Interior is working on a revised report on the environmental impacts of oil leasing in the refuge’s coastal plain. (Photo by Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

    The status report was filed in an active lawsuit launched in 2020 by three Gwich’in tribal governments in Alaska. That lawsuit seeks to overturn a decision by former President Donald Trump’s administration to sell leases in the refuge’s coastal plain. The decision to allow oil exploration there, the complaint said, violates cultural and traditional rights in an area that the Indigenous Gwich’in call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, meaning “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” because of its importance to the Porcupine Caribou Herd that ranges between northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada.
    The supplemental environmental study process started in 2021, a few months after the Biden administration took office. Interior started it after determining that presale study used by the Trump administration was indeed deficient in ways cited by the Gwich’in tribal plaintiffs. A draft supplemental study was released in September 2023.
    Interior had earlier estimated that a final supplemental report would be issued in the first quarter of this year and a record of decision in the second quarter, according to the status report.
    The new timeline would produce a decision just a few months before the deadline for a second oil lease sale in the refuge’s coastal plain. While President Biden, Haaland and other top officials in the administration are on record opposing oil development in the refuge, current law requires leasing. Under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management must hold the second lease sale by Dec. 22, 2024.
    The 2021 lease sale, held in the last days of the Trump administration, attracted little response. The main bidder in the Jan. 6, 2021, lease sale was the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned development bank. Its seven leases were canceled last September by the Interior Department. AIDEA subsequently filed a lawsuit over the lease cancellations.
    No major oil companies bid in the 2021 auction. One small independent submitted a single bid, as did an Anchorage real estate company, but they both relinquished their leases in 2022.
    AIDEA previously sued to overturn Interior’s earlier suspension order that barred any on-site exploration work at the leases sold by the Trump administration. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who is overseeing proceedings in the Gwich’in tribal government lawsuit, upheld Interior’s actions as legal in a ruling she issued in August 2023 and confirmed in February of this year.
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