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U.S. Suspends Oil and Gas Leases in One of Nation’s Largest Wilderness Areas

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced this week that it has suspended all oil and gas drilling activities established under the previous administration in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

One of nation’s largest undeveloped wilderness areas, the refuge is known for its fragile tundra, its coastal area underneath which 11 billion barrels of oil sits, and for being an important habitat for caribou, polar bears, and birds in Alaska.

After the Bureau of Land Management held a lease sale on January 6, it subsequently issued 10-year leases on nine tracts covering more than 430,000 acres.

According to a statement, a comprehensive environmental review of the leases will now take place under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Secretarial Order 3401 will also address legal deficiencies in the current leasing program’s environmental review.

The Department is notifying lessees that it is suspending oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge while this review goes on—in order to determine whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures.

According to the New York Times, various environmental groups have vocally given their support to the suspension—and are calling out for a permanent ban on drilling in the Arctic.

“Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America,” Kristen Miller, acting director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told The Times. “Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain.”

In one statement, more than a dozen Indigenous and conservation organizations thanked the current administration for taking steps to protect the land.

“These lands are sacred to the Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples and nursery to the Porcupine caribou, polar bears, and millions of migratory birds,” they wrote.

“More work remains, however, and we look forward to working with the administration on stronger action to correct this unlawful leasing program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands.”