Energy & Environment

Biden administration shrinks area eligible for drilling at Arctic reserve

A truck drives on an ice bridge constructed near the Colville-Delta 5 drilling site on Alaska's North Slope
Mark Thiessen/Associated Press
A truck drives on an ice bridge constructed near the Colville-Delta 5 drilling site on Alaska’s North Slope

The Biden administration is shrinking the amount of land eligible for drilling at an oil reserve in the Arctic.

The administration announced on Monday that it would return to an Obama administration plan that would enable the government to lease up to 52 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska  for oil and gas exploration. It reverses a Trump-era plan that would have opened up 82 percent of the reserve. 

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had previously indicated that it had selected the Obama administration’s plan as its “preferred alternative” for further consideration, on Monday it issued a Record of Decision formally affirming that it would return to the Obama-era plan. 

The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is an approximately 23 million-acre area in Alaska’s north slope.

In 1923, then-President Harding set the area aside as an emergency oil reserve for the Navy. It was later transferred to the bureau, which can sell leases for companies to drill for oil there. 

The move comes as the Biden administration is grappling with high gasoline prices and Republican criticism over its energy policies, but Monday’s move is not expected to have any immediate impacts on gasoline prices at the pump. 

When a lease sale is held, it takes more than four years on average for companies to begin production. The new decision represents an even earlier step in the process, designating what lands are eligible for lease. 

In addition to shrinking the amount of land available for lease, returning to the 2013 plan also reinstates protections for certain areas of particular environmental significance. 

One such area that will regain protections is Teshekpuk Lake, which the Biden administration document said is “of critical importance for nesting, breeding, and molting waterfowl and the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd.”

In explaining its rationale, the administration said that it would better protect the environment while still allowing energy development. 

Specifically it said that it provides “greater protections to environmental values and subsistence uses in the NPR-A while still allowing for oil and gas exploration and development consistent with BLM’s management responsibilities.”

During its tenure, the Trump administration pushed to expand Arctic drilling both at the petroleum reserve and, more controversially, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Biden administration has moved to reconsider its predecessor’s actions in both places. 

The latest action also comes shortly after the Biden administration announced new lease sales, though it has blamed that move on a court decision blocking its pause on new leasing.

Updated at 7:18 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Obama

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