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Biden administration suspends Trump-era oil and gas drilling leases in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

60 Minutes reports on ANWR
60 Minutes visits Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (2001) 12:57

The Biden administration is suspending oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reversing one of former President Donald Trump's final environmental decisions before leaving office. The administration plans to further explore the environmental impacts of drilling in the fragile Alaskan region. 

On his first day in the White House, President Joe Biden issued an executive order placing a temporary ban on the leases. Citing the "legal deficiencies" of the current program and "inadequacy" of the previous review, Secretary Deb Haaland suspended all activities in the region on Tuesday, pending a comprehensive analysis. 

ANWR covers 19.3 million acres, about 1.6 million of which are coastal plains containing precious and highly fought over oil and gas resources. It's home to hundreds of thousands of migrating polar bears, waterfowl and caribou — and it's warming twice as fast as any other region on the Earth due to climate change. 

Republicans and the oil industry have been attempting to gain access to the refuge for decades, locked in an ongoing battle with Democrats and local activists

Ours polaire (Ursus maritimus)
The Arctic Refuge is one of the only refuges within the National Wildlife Refuge System home to all three species of North American bear (black, brown, and polar). Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The leasing mandate was first introduced in the 2017 Tax Act. Just two weeks before the new administration took over, the Bureau of Land Management under Trump issued 10-year leases on more than 430,000 acres of refuge land, bringing in $14.4 million, far less than Republicans predicted. 

Six major U.S. banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America — had all said they would not finance drilling in ANWR, according to the Sierra Club. 

"President Biden believes America's national treasures are cultural and economic cornerstones of our country and he is grateful for the prompt action by the Department of the Interior to suspend all leasing pending a review of decisions made in the last administration's final days that could have changes the character of this special place forever," National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said in a statement to CBS News. 

"I fought to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stop the Trump administration's plan for drilling. I am proud to see the Biden administration reverse this Trump-era plan," Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted. "We must fight to preserve America's wild places for future generations." 

Senate Votes Not To Allow Drilling In Artic Refuge
Caribou graze in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in this undated file photo.  Getty Images

The Gwich'in tribe previously called drilling in the area "dangerous, risky, and unpopular." In a joint statement, 17 Indigenous and conservation organizations thanked the 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. We also look to the administration and Congress to now prioritize repealing the ongoing threat posed by the statutory oil leasing mandate and restoring protections to America's Serengeti." 

It's not clear if the administration will find enough evidence to cancel the leases entirely. 

A demonstrator holds a sign against drilling in the Arctic Refuge on the 58th anniversary of its creation, during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 11, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The suspension garnered harsh criticism from Republicans in the state, who said that the majority of Alaskans support the use of the Coastal Plan for petroleum exploration and future development. 

Senator Lisa Murkowski called the move "not unexpected but outrageous nonetheless." 

"This action serves no purpose other than to obstruct Alaska's economy and put our energy security at great risk," she said. "Alaskans are committed to developing our resources responsibly and have demonstrated our ability to do so safely to the world." 

"I oppose this assault on Alaska's economy and will use every means necessary to undo this egregious federal overreach," said Governor Mike Dunleavy. "Shutting down our lands was not what William Seward intended when Alaska was founded and we are not going to allow the Biden administration to turn Alaska into a giant national park."

The announcement comes as Biden faces criticism from environmental activists for his recent support of fossil fuel projects. Just last week, the administration defended in court a separate oil drilling operation in Alaska.

At the same time, the president is pushing to transform the U.S. energy sector, including a shift to renewable energy, electric vehicles and upgrades to the nation's power grid. His plans call for 100% renewable energy in the power sector by 2035. 

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