Biden suspends Arctic drilling rights sold in Trump’s last days as president

The Biden administration has announced it will suspend the Arctic oil drilling rights sold in the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency, reversing a signature policy of the previous White House and handing a victory to environmentalists.

In his first day as president, Joe Biden directed the interior department to review oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest areas of untouched wilderness in the US. On Tuesday, the department said the licences would be halted pending an environmental and legal review.

It said it had “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 decades-old law that is a marker of environmental standards.

To redress four years of inaction on climate change, Biden has unveiled a series of measures to regain America’s status as a leader on environmental issues. This includes rejoining the Paris climate accord and scrapping a permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, announcing plans to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and integrating climate-related risk into the financial system.

Oil companies and Republicans have long sought to exploit the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a more than 19m-acre swath of land that is home to endangered polar bears, caribou and other wildlife and considered sacred by the indigenous Gwich’in communities.

An aeroplane flies over caribou at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge © USFWS/AP

Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, called the move “an important step forward” in fulfilling Biden’s pledge to protect the refuge, following the Trump administration’s decision to sell the licences in January against opposition from activists.

The Biden administration has also promised to end new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, a sharp departure from the Trump era when environmental regulations and restrictions on energy producers were rolled back.

Trump sought to open up part of the refuge — about 1.5m acres along the coast — as part of a landmark plan to encourage greater fossil fuel production in the US despite rising backlash from environmentalists, large investors and the public.

Local officials have opposed the Biden move saying it deals a massive blow to the regional economy and an industry on which Alaska is hugely dependent.

“Our leases for oil and gas are valid and cannot be taken away by the federal government,” said Republican governor Mike Dunleavy. “I oppose this assault on Alaska’s economy and will use every means necessary to undo this egregious federal over-reach.”

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