United States, Biden suspends oil drilling in parts of Alaska

The ban on drilling for oil has been welcomed by activists, but comes after a series of controversial decisions in Alaska and beyond.

There is change afoot in the United States on the issues of climate and environmental protection. On 1st June, President Joe Biden‘s administration suspended permits that had been granted by Donald Trump to extract oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a protected nature reserve in northeastern Alaska. Thus, all operations will be temporarily blocked while the government assesses the environmental impact of the drilling and investigates possible legal errors linked to the granting of the licences.

However, this decision followed a series of much more controversial steps. On 26th May, Biden had defended a project aiming to extract oil and natural gas in northern Alaska, while in early April he had expressed opposition to the possibility of closing an important oil pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois. The sequence of contrasting decisions has drawn criticism from many activists, especially given the commitment to climate issues shown by Biden on the campaign trail. Let’s take a closer look at how things stand.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

No more drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge

The announcement came on 1st June: Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as US Secretary of the Interior, temporarily suspended operating licences to drill in a 1.5-million-acre region – that’s over 6,000 square kilometres – in Prudhoe Bay, northeastern Alaska. The area is part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an enormous nature reserve that was founded in 1960 and extends for almost 80,000 square kilometres. Increasingly rare animal species, like reindeer and polar bears, find their home in this refuge.

Precisely thanks to its untouched and fragile nature, the region had long been spared from drilling activities, but things changed with the arrival of the Trump administration. The former president launched a programme to sell licences for oil extraction back in 2017, the year he came into office. However, the preliminary research required to determine the impact of extraction processes only finished in August 2020, and operations were given the green light. Environmental activists, however, sued the Trump administration, claiming that the survey of possible damage had been carried out in a rushed, superficial manner.

Alaska, drilling
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was spared from drilling activities for a long time © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

In any case, the licences were bought at a relatively low price by small companies and by an organisation controlled by the State of Alaska. The latter was the only bidder on certain areas that were considered less attractive, a factor that may bring certain legal problems to the surface.

Now, the new administration has temporarily suspended the validity of those licences until issues relating to the environmental impact of extraction plants and the effective legitimacy of the contracts have been cleared up.

The decision was applauded by environmentalist associations and organisations that defend Native communities that inhabit the region. In a comment obtained by LifeGate, Alaska Wilderness League executive director Kristen Miller stated: “President Biden’s actions point to the start of a new era of strong and visionary leadership that fights climate change and prioritises environmental justice”. At the same time, however, Miller criticised earlier decisions in relation to the Willow Project.

Support for the Willow Project, in northern Alaska

On 26th May, just a few days before the stop to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was announced, the US Justice Department upheld the decision, made by the Trump administration in October 2020, to approve an enormous oil drilling programme in northern Alaska. The plan, known as the Willow Project, is managed by multinational corporation ConocoPhilips and could extract up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day for the next thirty years, in a part of Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve. Local activists had brought a lawsuit against the project but the US government has now confirmed that it complies with current legislation.

Alaska, drilling
Muskoxen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska © US Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

Miller has expressed strong criticism of the position taken by the Biden administration, calling it “extremely disappointing” and stating that it “ignores the concerns of local Native communities” and does not consider the risks for the territory. Many other organisations working in the environmental sector expressed views along the same lines. “They are opening up a lane for the oil and gas industry to cause irreparable harm to Arctic communities’ public health and wildlife habitats,” said Gregory Stewart – legal chair of the executive committee of the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, one of the country’s foremost environmentalist groups – in an interview with Reuters. Meanwhile, John Noel, an activist with Greenpeace USA, called the decision a “serious misstep“.

Conversely, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator for Alaska, welcomed the decision to proceed with the project: “I’ve been working from the get-go to educate the new administration on why the Willow project is so important to Alaska’s economy, the communities on the North Slope, and the thousands of people who are employed in the region,” Murkowski said in a press release. “I am pleased to share that the Department of the Interior has filed a brief in support of Willow and has committed to supporting the project moving forward”.

The pipeline in North Dakota

In early April, Joe Biden‘s White House also dismissed the possibility of temporarily blocking the operation of an important oil pipeline in North Dakota, which had also been approved by the Trump administration and has been in operation since 2017. A survey of the potential environmental risks caused by the pipeline is currently ongoing and will last until at least March 2022.

The infrastructure project, known as the Dakota Access Pipeline, runs for almost 2,000 kilometres between North Dakota and Illinois. It has been widely criticised over the years by Native Sioux communities, according to whom it pollutes the Missouri River, which is a key water source for these groups. The Sioux successfully sued the project, leading to the environmental survey that is currently underway

Dakota Access Pipeline
Members of the Sioux community protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline © Scott Olson/Getty Images

What now?

The challenge of climate change is becoming more urgent by the day and the United States, second only to China in terms of yearly emissions, have all the necessary requirements to set an example at the international level and prompt other countries to keep to the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

President Biden has repeatedly stated that he considers environmental issues as a priority for his administration, even going as far as creating a new, ad hoc government role: the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. The position was given to John Kerry, a veteran diplomat and Secretary of State in the Obama years.

According to many activists, the ban – albeit temporary – on oil drilling in the Alaskan reserve is a step in the right direction, but more courage is needed to bring about concrete and lasting consequences.

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