Energy

Alaska state agency with oil leases in Arctic refuge sues Biden administration

The Alaska agency that early this year won leases to pursue oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is suing the Biden administration over its orders that have halted activity there.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority argues that the Biden administration has violated federal laws, including the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that opened the door for the lease sale, according to the 32-page lawsuit filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

“Defendants have defied a direct congressional mandate to facilitate development of oil and gas resources on the coastal plain of Alaska,” the state agency alleges. “Rather than follow the law and the science, defendants have engaged in a politically driven, systematic campaign to prevent any Coastal Plain development.”

In January during the Trump administration’s closing days, the state agency won seven, 10-year leases to pursue development on tracts totaling about 370,000 acres in the 19-million-acre refuge.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day placing a temporary moratorium on development in the refuge. This summer, the Biden administration suspended the oil and gas leases and said that an environmental review of the oil and gas leasing program for the refuge, conducted under former President Donald Trump, contained “multiple legal deficiencies.” In August, the U.S. Interior Department announced it would review the program, a process that could take more than a year.

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Still, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has taken administrative steps to begin planning for oil exploration in the region, though it needs permits from the federal government to carry out the exploration.

The lawsuit names Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and Thomas Heinlein, director of the Bureau of Land Management Alaska office, as well as other administration officials.

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

A U.S. Interior Department official said the agency had no comment.

Officials with the state agency have argued that they are legally taking steps toward oil development in the refuge, as permitted by the 2017 law.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement from the state agency that environmentally safe development in the refuge would support jobs and U.S. energy, adding the Biden administration lacks “any understanding of how the nation’s energy infrastructure actually works.”

Alaska has been promised the right to drill in the refuge, said AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner, in a statement from the agency. Delaying the leases puts Alaska’s oil-based economy at risk, he said.

“AIDEA, Alaska, and Alaskans are due the full potential benefit of those leases and we will fight the federal government in court to keep its promises,” Weitzner said in the statement.

A section in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act had made oil development a possibility in the refuge’s coastal plain, following congressional approval. Congress had long rejected attempts to allow oil and gas leasing in the refuge, until a Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved it and former President Donald Trump approved it.

The federal government has estimated the coastal plain could contain billions of barrels of oil. But the lease sale generated no bids from major oil and gas companies. Major banks have said they would not finance new oil development in the Arctic.

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