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Science

US Will Review Oil and Gas Leasing Program in Alaska Refuge

JUNEAU, Alaska — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced Tuesday it is moving ahead with a new environmental review of oil and gas leasing in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Interior secretary said she found "multiple legal deficiencies" in a prior review that provided a basis for the first lease sale on the refuge's coastal plain earlier this year.

The federal land agency said there will be a public process to determine the scope of the review and identify major issues related to a leasing program. Information gathered during that process will influence development of the review, according to an agency notice.

President Joe Biden, in a January executive order, called on the Interior secretary to temporarily halt activities related to the leasing program, review the program and "as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program."

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in June said her review identified deficiencies in the record underpinning the leases, including an environmental review that failed to "adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives." 

She announced plans at that time for the new review and halted activities related to the leasing program while the analysis was pending.

Richard Packer, a spokesperson for the federal land agency, did not answer questions from The Associated Press or provide additional details on the agency's plans, referring instead to an agency press release.

Conservationists welcomed a new review but also called on Congress to repeal the provisions of law calling for lease sales.

A law passed in 2017 called for at least two lease sales within the coastal plain, with the first before Dec. 22, 2021, and the second before Dec. 22, 2024, the land agency has said. The first lease sale was held in January, in the waning days of the Trump administration.

Alaska political leaders, including the current Republican congressional delegation, have long pushed to open the coastal plain to development. Drilling supporters view development as a way to boost oil production, generate revenue and create or sustain jobs.

Critics have said the area off the Beaufort Sea provides habitat for wildlife including caribou, polar bears and birds — and should be off limits to drilling. The Indigenous Gwich'in consider the coastal plain sacred and have expressed concern about impacts to a caribou herd they rely on for subsistence.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan in a statement said Tuesday's announcement was a "political stall tactic" and called on Haaland to "accept the science" in the existing environmental review.

By initiating a new review, "the Biden administration is ignoring the will of Congress, the will of Alaskans and the best interests of the Alaska Native communities on the North Slope," Sullivan said.

Attorneys for the North Slope Borough, Native Village of Kaktovik and Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation argued against efforts in court to block the January lease sale.

The notice released Tuesday said the purpose of the supplemental review planned by the Bureau of Land Management was bound by law and remained the same as the earlier review: to implement provisions of the 2017 law.

The notice said potential alternatives to be considered included those that would designate certain areas as open or closed to leasing, limit surface development, prohibit surface infrastructure in sensitive areas and "otherwise avoid or mitigate" oil and gas activity impacts.

Tim Woody, a spokesperson for The Wilderness Society, noted in an email that the law calls for another lease sale by late 2024. 

"As it stands now, the only way to prevent that lease sale would be for Congress to take action to amend or repeal the drilling provision in that 2017 legislation," he said.

Critics said the first lease sale was rushed and labeled it a bust after major oil companies stayed on the sidelines. A main bidder was the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation. 

The authority holds seven, 10-year leases, said Alan Weitzner, the corporation's executive director.

Weitzner said the corporation received a letter from an Interior Department official notifying it of a suspension of operations on those leases. 

The letter, dated June 1, stated that the Bureau of Land Management would undertake the additional environmental review "to determine whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided or subject to additional mitigation measures."

The corporation asked the Interior Department the basis for making that determination but has not received a response, Weitzner said.

"From our side, we have very valid, enforceable leases and we are looking to assert our full rights under those leases," he said.

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