The Biden administration has reversed a Donald Trump-era drilling programme by suspending oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The order by interior secretary Deb Haaland follows a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities imposed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.
Mr Biden’s January 20 executive order suggested a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal flaws in a drilling programme approved by the Trump administration under a 2017 law enacted by Congress.
After conducting a required review, the US Department of the Interior said it “identified defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives” required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law.
The remote, 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, including migrating birds from six continents.
Republicans and the oil industry have long been trying to open up the oil-rich refuge, which is considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich’in, for drilling.
Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it.
Environmental groups and Democrats cheered the Interior Department order, while Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation slammed it as misguided and illegal.
The US Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, held a lease sale for the refuge’s coastal plain on January 6, two weeks before Mr Biden took office.
Eight days later the agency signed leases for nine tracts totalling nearly 685 square miles. However, the issuance of the leases was not announced publicly until January 19, former President Donald Trump’s last full day in office.
Mr Biden has opposed drilling in the region, and environmental groups have been pushing for permanent protections, which Mr Biden called for during the presidential campaign.
The administration’s action to suspend the leases comes after officials disappointed environmental groups last week by defending a Trump administration decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope.
Critics say the action flies in the face of Mr Biden’s pledges to address climate change.
The Justice Department said in a court filing that opponents of the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska were seeking to stop development by “cherry-picking” the records of federal agencies to claim environmental review law violations.
The filing defends the reviews underpinning last fall’s decision approving project plans.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, hailed suspension of the Arctic leasing program, which she said was the result of a flawed legal process under Mr Trump.
She said: “Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction, and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new programme analysis that prioritises sound science and adequate tribal consultation.”
Ms Miller added more action is needed as she called for a permanent cancellation of the leases and repeal of the 2017 law mandating drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain.
The drilling mandate was included in a massive tax cut approved by congressional Republicans during Mr Trump’s first year in office.
In a joint statement, Alaska senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with representative Don Young and governor Mike Dunleavy, criticised the Interior Department action. All four are Republicans.
Mr Dunleavy said the leases sold in January “are valid and cannot be taken away by the federal government.”
Mr Sullivan, who praised Mr Biden last week for backing the Willow oil project, said suspending the Arctic leases “goes against the law, facts, the science and the will of the Native communities on the North Slope.
“It is nothing more than a naked political move by the Biden administration to pay off its extreme environmental allies.”