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By Coral Davenport, Henry Fountain and Lisa Friedman

© The New York Times

WASHINGTON » The Biden administration on Tuesday suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, unspooling a signature achievement of the Trump presidency and delivering on a promise by President Joe Biden to protect the fragile Alaskan tundra from fossil fuel extraction.

The decision sets up a process that could halt drilling in one of the largest tracts of untouched wilderness in the United States, home to migrating waterfowl, caribou and polar bears. But it also lies over as much as 11 billion barrels of oil and Democrats and Republicans have fought over whether to allow drilling there for more than four decades.

A formal order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland paused the leases until her agency has completed an environmental analysis of their impact and a legal review of the Trump administration’s decision to grant them.

While the move follows Biden’s Inauguration Day executive order to halt new Arctic drilling, it also serves as a high-profile way for the president to solidify his environmental credentials after coming under fire from activists angered by his recent quiet support for some fossil fuel projects.

“President Biden believes America’s national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration’s final days that could have changed the character of this special place forever,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House domestic climate policy adviser.

Environmentalists have criticized moves by the White House last month to legally defend a major drilling project elsewhere in Alaska, to pass on an opportunity to block the contentious Dakota Access oil pipeline, and to support a Trump-era decision to grant oil and gas leases on public land in Wyoming.

Experts observed that the timing of the announcement to suspend the drilling leases in the refuge — coming on the heels of the fossil-fuel friendly actions by the administration — could be designed to appease Biden’s environmental critics. “This will help solidify the president’s bona fides in opposing major new fossil fuel projects,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School. “He doesn’t have a 100% clean record on this. This is certainly a step that the environmental community will smile on, coming at this moment, in view of the recent actions that environmentalists didn’t like.”

Still, the suspension of the leases alone does not guarantee that drilling will be blocked in the Arctic refuge. The administration has only committed to reviewing the Trump leases, not canceling them. If it determines that the leases were granted illegally, it could then have legal grounds to cancel them.

“I wouldn’t say that it halts it but it slows it down considerably,” Gerrard said. “People knew that it was vulnerable and that they couldn’t count on the Trump leases sticking. At a minimum it’s a blinking yellow light for potential developers and investors.”

Conservative groups contend that Biden’s suspension of the leases may be illegal. “The government cannot enter into a contract to take over $14 million and then invalidate the contract without cause,” said Devin Watkins, an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that worked with the Trump administration in its efforts to roll back environmental protections. “No cause for canceling the ANWR leases has been provided.”

Policy experts also noted that any moves by Biden to block Arctic drilling could be undone by a future administration.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has long supported drilling in ANWR. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

Environmental groups applauded the move but called for a permanent ban on Arctic drilling.

The refuge, 19 million acres in the northeastern part of the state, had long been off limits to oil and gas development, with Democrats, environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups successfully fighting efforts to open it.

But President Donald Trump made opening a portion of it, about 1.5 million acres along Prudhoe Bay that is known as the Coastal Plain, a centerpiece of his push to develop more domestic fossil fuel production.

In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress included language in a tax bill establishing a leasing program as a way of generating revenue for the federal government. But an environmental review, required under federal law, was only completed last year.

Environmental groups and others immediately sued the Trump administration, saying the review was faulty.

 

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