Biden administration moves to block Ambler Road and announces sweeping restrictions on NPR-A drilling

The Biden administration on Friday moved to block a proposed 200-mile road to valuable mineral deposits in Northwest Alaska, and also said it would increase protections to halt oil and gas development in much of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

President Joe Biden said in a statement that Alaska’s “natural wonders” support subsistence hunting and fishing for Alaska Native communities and should be protected.

“I am proud that my administration is taking action to conserve more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic and to honor the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on and stewarded these lands since time immemorial,” he said.

The Interior Department said in a statement that its actions balance development with preservation.

The announcement drew sharp protests from Alaska’s congressional delegation, industry trade groups and some North Slope leaders who said it could undercut economic development in the state for decades to come. They said it was a political move designed to bolster support from young voters upset with Biden’s decision to approve ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil project in Alaska last year.

It drew widespread praise from conservation and tribal groups who said it will protect millions of acres from drilling and mining, and help reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. They said it will help support Alaska Native subsistence hunters and safeguard wildlife that face growing risks from climate change, such as polar bears, fish, caribou and migratory birds.

Both actions are a reversal of steps taken under Donald Trump’s administration to open up land in the NPR-A for oil and gas development and permitting the Ambler Road right of way.


Interior issued a final environmental review that recommends preventing construction of the road to the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska by denying a right-of-way access permit. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state economic development agency, had applied for the permit to support potential future mines. A final decision from the Biden administration on the proposed permit is expected later this year.

And in the 23-million-acre petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope, the finalized rule will “ensure maximum protection” for much of the area, Interior said. The reserve is the site of major new oil discoveries on Alaska’s North Slope, including Willow.

The regulations in the reserve have not been updated in more than 40 years, Interior said. Since then, Arctic climate conditions have changed dramatically, affecting the environment and Alaska Native communities.

The rule will limit future oil and gas leasing on 13 million acres in the reserve encompassed by five “special areas” that provide valuable wildlife habitat, such as the Teshekpuk Lake region, an important refuge for migratory waterfowl.

It bans new leasing on 10.6 million acres, following the limits in the management plan for the reserve created in 2022.

Interior also will start soliciting public comment in the coming weeks on whether to consider expanding protections for special areas in the petroleum reserve, including by making them larger or creating new ones, the agency said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the Biden administration has evenhandedly supported conservation and development. But she said some places are too special to develop.

“There is no question, using the best available science and incorporating Indigenous knowledge practiced over millennia, that these decisions” will protect resources and safeguard Indigenous ways of life, she said.

Alaska delegation reacts

The Biden administration’s plans for the two actions leaked to some news organizations early this week, leading to early reactions from Alaska political leaders and groups on all sides of the issue.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in an interview Thursday said the actions are a “kick in the gut for Alaska.”

The president and his team “are trying to find a way to prove their environmental cred to younger voters who are not seemingly impressed,” she said.

“In the meantime, it’s doing extraordinary damage to Alaska, to our economy, but more importantly, to national security,” she said. “Whether it’s minerals, or whether it is oil ... they’re taking it all off the table for short-term political gain.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters on Thursday that the Biden administration was sending a message to foreign adversaries such as China that America won’t use its resources to strengthen itself.

In a statement on social media Friday, Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola called Biden’s action on Ambler Road “premature” and said the administration’s NPR-A decision “is a huge step back for Alaska, failing to strike a balance between the need for gap oil and natural gas and legitimate environmental concerns, and steamrolling the voices of many Alaska Natives in the decision-making process.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a statement called the actions anti-Alaska.

“Biden’s latest fiat to lock up half the reserve, without congressional approval, jeopardizes America’s energy security and ignores the fact Alaska and other oil producing states are now safely producing millions of barrels of crude oil per day,” he said.

Katie Capozzi, president of the Alaska Chamber, said the consequences will be severe and far-reaching.


“They’re killing investment for decades to come by these types of decisions,” Capozzi said of the Biden administration. “So this isn’t a one-off or two-off. There are companies from around the world and the Lower 48 that are looking to invest and they keep showing them over and over again that it’s actually a really dangerous and risky place to invest.”

Limits in the petroleum reserve

The Indiana-sized petroleum reserve, west of Prudhoe Bay, has been the site of major new discoveries, such as Willow that’s expected to produce around 600 million barrels of oil, valued at about $50 billion at today’s oil prices.

Interior says the rule will not alter existing leases or impact current development. But the rule says that “future development of an existing lease may be subject to additional terms and conditions” to mitigate impacts on oil and gas activity.

The rule points out that the Willow development plan was approved with many stipulations and operating requirements to limit its environmental impacts. Those restrictions included shrinking the number of drill sites to three from five.

Bill Armstrong, the geologist whose discovery of the Pikka field near the reserve sparked new interest from oil companies, said his leases will likely be impacted by the rule. Armstrong Oil and Gas owns more than 1 million acres of leases in the reserve.

Armstrong said in a text on Friday he was still poring through the details of the rule. But assuming it follows previous aspects of the proposal, it would eliminate investment in the reserve by raising uncertainty about whether a large project will be approved.

“So it will most definitely impact our leases and our plans,” he said. “Putting in major restrictions and potential unknowns is a way of making sure nobody invests.”

There are major fields yet to be discovered in the reserve, and they will have no value to anyone if they lie untapped, he said.


“It is a sad day for Alaska and our country,” he said.

ConocoPhillips also holds leases covering 1 million acres in the reserve. Oil is expected to flow from Willow starting in 2029.

ConocoPhillips had said in a letter to Interior in December that the proposed rule would not directly affect operations already authorized on its leases. But it said it would adversely affect future proposals for new activities and developments and conflict with existing lease rights.

Now that the rule is final, a representative with ConocoPhillips on Friday said in an email the company is still reviewing the rule to determine its scope and effect.

“Throughout this entire process, we have raised concerns about the substance of the proposed rule,” said Rebecca Boys, a spokesperson with the company. “We believe the public interest is served by balanced rules that allow for responsible energy production from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which the Congress set aside for American energy development.”

Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said the group holds the view that the new rule will affect not just future leases, but current leases held by several companies in the reserve.

That could potentially cost Alaska billions of dollars in investments, she said.

“Anything that they want or need to do next, will have to go through this new rule,” she said.

The Interior Department said it received more than 100,000 comments on the petroleum reserve rule, including from Alaska Native tribes, corporations, communities and others.

North Slope Borough Mayor Josiah Patkotak said in a statement that leaders from the region broadly opposed the rule.

“To refuse to listen to our voices is to say that you know better — better than the people who have been this land’s stewards for the past 10,000 years, and who depend on its continued health for their own survival,” Patkotak said.

The restrictions in the petroleum reserve will hurt tax revenue for the North Slope Borough and its eight Alaska Native communities, the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat said in a statement.


“The federal government has again excluded the Indigenous North Slope Iñupiat from policymaking by issuing a final rule for the NPR-A that does not reflect our communities’ wishes,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.

Revenue from oil development over several decades has helped Alaska Native communities on the North Slope enjoy basic services, he said.

Now those revenues are threatened if oil development stalls, he said. That’s in part because there could be less benefit from a mechanism in federal law that provides royalty income from oil development to local villages.

Conservation groups praised the limits proposed for the petroleum reserve and the effort to create new special areas.

The announcements are an important step in Biden’s growing climate legacy, said Kristen Miller, executive director at Alaska Wilderness League.

“The Biden administration’s actions for America’s Arctic shows a commitment to conservation that meets the needs of the region’s outsized vastness and ecological value,” Miller said.


“We are deeply grateful that the Biden administration has taken steps to safeguard globally significant and invaluable resources, address climate change impacts, and implement stronger protections for Special Areas in the Western Arctic,” said Meda DeWitt, The Wilderness Society’s interim state director for Alaska.

The Ambler Road

Several tribal leaders and conservation groups said they were thrilled by the recommendation to stop the Ambler Road.

“This is a historic win for the Alaska Native community,” said Brian Ridley, chief chair for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a large tribal consortium in the Interior of Alaska that has sued along with other tribes to stop the road. “It reaffirms that our voices matter, that our knowledge is invaluable, and that our lands and animals deserve protection.”

The proposed gravel road would link Alaska’s skeletal road system north of Fairbanks to the mining district, ending near Ambler and other villages. A portion of it would cross the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

The road would irreparably damage permafrost and require 3,000 stream crossings, Interior said. It would impact important subsistence wildlife, including sheefish and the declining Western Arctic caribou herd, Interior said, citing the environmental review.

The road’s construction costs are estimated to run at least $750 million, including related infrastructure such as maintenance stations.

The proposed funding plan for the road is speculative, the agency said. The state economic development agency would sell bonds to pay for the road, with mining companies paying fees.

But there are no mines or even mine proposals before the federal government in the area, the agency said. It’s likely the road would eventually be used by the public, Interior said.

Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said a decision preventing the road will stop billions of dollars of potential mineral development, including for resources needed to support Biden’s agenda to boost renewable energy.

That includes large copper deposits and cobalt needed for clean energy hardware like wind turbines and rechargeable batteries.

She asserted that the recommendation, if finalized by the Biden administration, will violate the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside vast portions of Alaska for conservation and called for surface access to the mining district, including requiring it through National Park Service lands.

A representative with Ambler Metals, which is exploring two mineral prospects in the Ambler mineral district, said the action circumvents the intent of the federal law and will prevent jobs from going to Alaska Native villages.

“We are deeply disappointed by the Bureau of Land Management’s politically-motivated decision to block construction of the Ambler Access Project,” said Kaleb Froehlich, managing director of Ambler Metals.

The decision deprives Alaska Native communities from good-paying jobs and millions of dollars of badly needed tax revenues and economic investment, Froehlich said.

The economic development agency said in a statement that the action represents another “illegal and direct assault on Alaska and its statehood property rights.”

During the comment period for the Ambler road, nearly 90,000 people offered written comments, the Interior Department said in a statement. Extensive public meetings and consultations with tribal and Alaska Native corporations were held, the agency said.

Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said national park visitors should celebrate the decision.

“By rejecting this mining road, President Biden and Secretary (Deb) Haaland have shown that they know how important it is to safeguard America’s treasured lands and respect the communities that have relied on and protected them for generations,” Pierno said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or