WASHINGTON — Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, grew up in Alaska in the 1980s. As a top member of the Biden administration’s Interior Department, his work has a significant influence on public lands and resource development policies in the state.
Among his most consequential actions in his three years working under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland: Beaudreau signed the record of decision for ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil project on the North Slope, approved in March.
In a recent video call interview, Beaudreau reflected on his background in Alaska and Interior Department decisions affecting the state, including the recently canceled leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and plans for a long-sought and much-disputed road out of King Cove.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anchorage Daily News: I understand that you spent much of your childhood in Alaska. I’m wondering how your background in the state influences your thinking now on resource development.
Beaudreau: I grew up in Alaska. My dad, when he got out of the Marine Corps, got a job on the North Slope after the trans-Alaska pipeline came online, and my family moved up to the state when I was in second or third grade, I guess. I graduated from Service High School. I was, I guess, a junior in high school when the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened, which for all Alaskans, including me at the time, was a difficult experience and a difficult thing to see happen.
All Alaskans love the outdoors, take a lot of pride in the beauty and the resources of the state. And at the same time, we’re a resource development state as well — including, in particular, oil. And so to be confronted with that situation and the extremely harsh realities of that oil spill, I think, was obviously a traumatic experience for all Alaskans, including especially the people in Prince William Sound. And then I joined the Interior Department in 2010 under similarly difficult circumstances with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
I’ve carried my childhood and all of those experiences into my work here at the department, starting with the response to Deepwater Horizon, but really carrying through every facet of it, of the balances that have to be struck as we figure out what the right solutions are for the American people and how our public lands and spaces are used and conserved in everybody’s interest. And that’s part of the reason why I stayed in this area for as long as I have. Those solutions are never static. It’s never totally figured out. And it’s a fascinating area for those reasons.
ADN: Last week, the Biden administration canceled leases owned by a state of Alaska agency in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What’s your message to Alaskans on why the Biden administration thinks this needed to happen?
Beaudreau: As all Alaskans know, these issues around potential oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been with us and with the state for decades and decades. In fact, I remember a junior high debate topic being, “Should oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge go forward, pro and con?”
That said, the discussion has evolved as many things with respect to energy development across the nation and Alaska has evolved. With respect to ANWR in particular, I think a couple of things. One, there is the 2017 tax act that requires two lease sales in the 1002 area. The first of those, as our analysis showed and as has been communicated, included a lot of very serious legal deficiencies. And so, the bottom line for the decision to cancel the leases was a legal one.
The only remaining leases were held by AIDEA (the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority). The only two actual oil and gas companies who had purchased leases already voluntarily relinquished theirs. And so in our mind, it was better to deal with the legal realities about the deficiencies in that sale as we also continue planning for the second sale that’s mandated under the Tax Act.
ADN: Observers often see the approval of Willow, coupled with last week’s protections in ANWR, and then in the NPR-A, as maybe an effort by the Biden administration to appease environmentalists and climate activists who weren’t happy with Willow’s approval. Do you see it that way?
Beaudreau: No, I don’t. I see the Willow decision as again fundamentally grounded in legal issues. Many of the leases within the Willow unit have been issued back to the 1990s. Those leases have been affirmed across administrations repeatedly. ConocoPhillips made substantial investments in the Willow project. And under those circumstances, the conversation was about what type of project would be best under our legal authorities.
With respect to the draft NPR-A rule, that was put out as well as the decision to cancel the leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, again, both of those measures have their own independent authorities as well as rationale. The NPR-A has specific special areas within it that are extremely important, including to Alaska Native subsistence users. And those areas deserve protection, and that’s why we put out the draft rule.
And then we talked about the legal infirmities with respect to the ANWR lease decisions. I know people tend to connect the dots, but I think it’s best to look at each of those actions on their own merits.
ADN: With the Interior Department’s decision to cancel those leases in the Arctic Refuge, critics — including some Alaska political leaders — have argued the Interior Department has a record of unfairly closing off development in Alaska, while approving projects in other states. How do you respond to that?
Beaudreau: Well, as an Alaskan myself, I know where that sentiment comes from. I also think it is a sentiment that is shared in most Western states. And it’s honestly a perspective that I bring into this job and the work I do at the Interior Department. Every place wants to be self-sufficient. Every place wants to have a vital economy that gives people a future, and those are real issues, and real issues in Alaska as well as many Western states.
I do understand where those feelings come from. I also understand that across the West and across public lands, we have a responsibility to all Americans to strike the right balances. And so I try to bring in a Western perspective and bring an Alaskan perspective into all of these conversations, while at the same time being mindful that public lands do belong to all Americans.
ADN: You signed the record of decision for the Willow project. Why did you sign that rather than Secretary Haaland, and can you talk about what the decision-making process looked like in those final days before approval? You mentioned the legal issues, but did anything else contribute to that decision?
Beaudreau: Just in terms of the authorities and documentation, it was important, I think, that the decision be — in technical terms — a final agency action, and therefore it’s appropriate for the deputy secretary to sign the decision to make clear that this was a final decision of the department.
And with respect to the decision-making process, that’s reflected, I think, in the supplemental environmental impact statement that we finalized and published in connection with the decision. And I am completely comfortable with the decision at the end of the day.
And again, within a legal framework, having a balanced decision that minimized the footprint and the surface impacts also right-sized the Willow unit, so that nearly 70,000 acres of public lands in the NPR-A that were not necessary to support the approved development were relinquished and returned to the department, I thought that was the right thing to do.
On the whole, I think the decision again struck an appropriate balance recognizing valid existing rights, real production, real barrels into TAPS, while maximizing protections and right-sizing the unit at the same time.
ADN: In another issue important to Alaska, Secretary Haaland has reversed course on the Trump-era approval of the King Cove road land exchange, but has committed to pursuing another plan to build a road. Can you give an update on where that plan is and what the road could look like?
Beaudreau: Again, you probably notice a recurring theme here, and as a lawyer myself, it is just the reality that I’ve encountered frequently in my time in the department. I think — and this isn’t a political statement, this is a legal statement — a lot of the approvals issued in the previous administration, unfortunately, involved cutting corners and work that, in my judgment, at the end of the day, would not be able to pass legal muster and judicial scrutiny.
And that was true of the Trump administration’s approval of a land exchange in 2019 for King Cove. That said, I think Secretary Haaland has been very clear that she has listened to the people in King Cove, understands their needs. Understands the difficult circumstances from a health and safety perspective that King Cove residents unfortunately often find themselves in. And (Haaland) has tasked me and others in the department to work to develop solutions.
There have been a number of conversations, including directly with King Cove residents and leaders, including just last week, about how to meet those needs, including consideration of a properly-supported land exchange, but those conversations are ongoing.
ADN: The world seems to be moving toward renewable energy, which poses a threat to Alaska’s lifeblood, really, oil. How do you see Alaska negotiating this change without destroying its economy?
Beaudreau: Again, like so many states in the West, the energy transition does require new thought about an economic and just future for the people who live in Western states and Alaska. And I completely understand the anxiety that these types of changes cause for many people.
At the same time, Alaska has a lot going for it. Yes, resource development, including oil and gas, is a foundation for the state’s economy. That’s actually going to continue for the foreseeable future. And Alaskans, like Americans across the country, need to use the time that we have to think about what the future holds and what are new economic opportunities that can be developed within the state.
I have a lot of belief and confidence in Alaskans’ ingenuity and creativity and perseverance to know that while changes are happening, Alaska’s future is bright, because Alaska has just a tremendous amount to offer. It is and always will be one of the most special places in the world. I do see a bright future for Alaska, and I do have a lot of belief that Alaskans will define that future for themselves.