A federal judge in Anchorage on Monday ruled against a state agency that holds oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying the Biden administration’s decision in 2021 to temporarily suspend an oil and gas lease program there was valid.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason’s 74-page decision dismisses “all claims” brought by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. She says the federal government’s pause followed federal law as the Interior Department conducts an additional environmental review of the leasing program approved under former President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden, who had vowed to protect the refuge from drilling, signed an executive order as one of his first acts in office that placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity in the refuge. Soon after, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland determined that the environmental review that led to the approval of the leasing program contained multiple legal flaws. The agency temporarily suspended the leases.
“It is well within (Interior’s) authority to issue leases pursuant to the program and to pause lease implementation to address legal errors,” Gleason wrote in her decision.
“Contrary to plaintiffs’ and the state’s assertions, a temporary pause in implementing a program is not a decision to indefinitely cease its implementation,” Gleason wrote.
Interior has announced plans to release a draft of the supplemental review by the end of September, Gleason wrote. That review could eventually lead to a decision that reaffirms, voids, or changes the leasing program. But Interior has not yet taken that step, and that’s not an issue before the court, Gleason wrote.
The ruling is a victory for the Biden administration and for groups that had intervened on the federal government’s side, including several conservation groups and the Gwich’in Steering Committee, representing Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada that depend on caribou that use the refuge.
“This court decision rejects AIDEA’s careless agenda to drill on sacred lands and allows us to continue defending the Porcupine caribou herd and our traditional way of life from a destructive, disrespectful, needless and illegal leasing program,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a prepared statement.
The state agency said in a prepared statement that it’s disappointed in the decision.
“This is another example of why comprehensive permit reform is needed,” the statement said. “Agency decisions must be final at some point and not subject to politics and the whims of changing administrations.”
In addition to the state agency, plaintiffs included the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the North Slope region, and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the only village within the refuge. The state of Alaska intervened in the case on the side of the state agency.
Drilling in the 19-million-acre refuge, home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife, has been a flashpoint between conservation groups and drilling advocates for decades.
But Congress approved drilling there in 2017, and the administration of former President Donald Trump auctioned leases in early 2021. Congress has also called for a second lease sale before Dec. 22, 2024.
The state agency is the only leaseholder in the refuge, holding seven 10-year leases on tracts totaling 366,000 acres, after the oil industry backed away from pursuing oil activity in the refuge.
The state agency sued the Biden administration in November 2021, seeking to halt the moratorium so on-the-ground exploration activity could begin.