Energy & Environment

Biden administration withdraws approval for road through Alaskan refuge after previously defending it in court

Interior Secretary Haaland speaks during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the budget, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced its withdrawal of a Trump-era land swap in southwestern Alaska that it once defended in court, a day after its approval of an Alaskan oil project sparked outrage from environmentalists.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said she has withdrawn the 2019 land exchange between the federal government and the King Cove Corporation, which would have allowed the corporation to construct a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The Biden Justice Department previously defended the exchange in court in March 2021, shortly before Haaland’s confirmation, continuing the Trump administration’s appeal of a 2020 decision rejecting the exchange. The following May, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the swap, which advocates have said is necessary to connect the community to medical resources. Other proponents included Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), the only Republican on the Senate Energy Committee to back Haaland’s confirmation.

That August, the Interior Department filed a brief in opposition to rehearing the decision, saying in a statement “any acquisition of Refuge land in Alaska through a land exchange must satisfy the purposes of conservation and protection of subsistence uses and habitat under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The brief is not about the merits of this land exchange, which is an issue that remains to be addressed in litigation before a lower court and, ultimately, by the Department.”

Asked about the administration’s previous defense of the swap Tuesday, an Interior Department spokesperson referred The Hill to the statement accompanying that brief.

In her announcement, Haaland said the department has identified “several procedural flaws” that contravened department policy in the 2019 exchange, and that it will conduct its own environmental analysis.

“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice,” she wrote.

The department cited former President Jimmy Carter’s unusual step of filing a brief in the 9th Circuit arguing the approval was inconsistent with the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, which he signed in 1980 to create the refuge.

The Interior announcement comes a day after the department formally approved the Willow Project, a large-scale oil drilling project in northwestern Alaska proposed by ConocoPhillips. The approval sparked outrage from many of Haaland and President Biden’s allies in the environmental movement, who accused them of undermining their own climate goals by approving a project estimated to cause major increases in carbon emissions.

Tags Biden Deb Haaland Jimmy Carter Lisa Murkowski

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