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White House Suspends Drilling Leases In Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Biden administration suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those leases were issued in the last days of Donald Trump's presidency. There are potentially billions of barrels of oil that might lie underneath Alaska's Coastal Plain. The Department of the Interior will review the environmental impact of those leases before deciding whether to keep or cancel them. Here's Tegan Hanlon with Alaska Public Media.

TEGAN HANLON, BYLINE: In January, the Trump administration sold off the first ever oil leases to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Yesterday, the Biden administration hit the pause button and temporarily blocked any drilling. The refuge is one of the most remote wilderness areas in the U.S., home to polar bears, birds and migrating caribou.

BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Caribou herds have been migrating to this beautiful, untouched area for thousands and thousands of years. And I think they have every right to continue that.

HANLON: Bernadette Demientieff is the head of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. The Gwich'in are an Indigenous group whose culture and diet revolve around the migrating caribou. Demientieff hopes Biden will go even farther and ban drilling in the coastal plain.

DEMIENTIEFF: We were expecting more, but, you know, we'll take what we got and we do understand that they have to follow the laws, something that the former administration refused to do.

HANLON: The Interior Department says it will review the oil leases before deciding whether to reaffirm or cancel them. On the campaign trail, Biden had vowed to adopt permanent protections for the refuge. Alaska's top lawmakers, who are all Republicans, are furious about the administration's move. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski says Biden's actions are, quote, "not unexpected but are outrageous nonetheless." She was a key player in Congress' decision in 2017 to open the northernmost part of the refuge to oil development. That move eventually led to the first ever lease sale there in January. There weren't many potential buyers, though. Alaska's state-owned economic development corporation walked away with seven of the nine leases sold. The state corporation's executive director, Alan Weitzner, says those leases are contracts. He sees oil development in the refuge as good for the economy, good for the country's energy independence. The suspension frustrates him.

ALAN WEITZNER: Disappointed, surprised that they're identifying what currently to us are unknown deficiencies within the program itself.

HANLON: He says he plans to wait until the Interior Department finishes its review to figure out next steps. Meanwhile, Alaska's governor and congressional delegation promised to fight Biden's suspension, keeping alive a dispute between Democrats and Republicans that dates back 40 years.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Hanlon in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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