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In Big Win for Arctic, Government Cancels Illegal Oil Leases in Alaska

What happened: The Biden administration today cancelled a set of illegal leases for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and added protections against future fossil fuel development across Alaska’s Arctic lands.

Why it matters: The region represents a critical last refuge for wildlife and provides sustenance and spiritual connection for Indigenous people. Fossil fuel development in this irreplaceable ecosystem spoils habitat, risks oil spills, and locks in yet more climate-wrecking emissions. Earthjustice has advocated for decades in courts and Congress to protect these lands.

Today’s decisive action establishs important safeguards against new fossil fuel threats in the region. We are celebrating these significant steps forward. And more action is needed. The door is still open to the Willow Project and other developments in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (Reserve).

What new protections have been added in the Arctic?

  • Cancelled leases: The Department of Interior announced it would cancel oil-and-gas leases that were auctioned unlawfully during the final days of the Trump administration. These leases were the first ever in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, a sensitive region that generations of Americans have rallied to protect.
  • Strengthening the Refuge: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a draft impact statement of what oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge could do to the environment, which will guide future leasing decisions. This is an important step toward providing the maximum protections allowed under current law.
  • Protections in the Reserve: The BLM also proposed new land management regulations for the Reserve that would curb leasing in designated special areas including wetlands surrounding Teshekpuk Lake. These wetlands are crucial habitat: Birds from every continent have been spotted in the Reserve. These new regulations provide additional protection for millions of acres in the Reserve, including existing special areas. The BLM will be required to consider new special areas at least every 5 years.
A pair of snowy owls in the Western Arctic, in the area close to Lake Teshekpuk. One owl crouches down, holding a small rodent in its mouth. The second is in midflight, with its wings spread.

A pair of snowy owls in the Western Arctic, in the area close to Lake Teshekpuk. (Kiliii Yuyan for Earthjustice)

What impact will this have on Willow and other oil projects in the Reserve?

  • Existing leases remain: The new protections for the Reserve are mostly focused on lands never leased to the fossil-fuel industry. But millions of acres in this region have already been leased, including those involving ConocoPhillips’ highly controversial Willow Project.
  • A fossil fuel hub: Earlier this year, the Biden administration allowed Willow to move forward in the Reserve. Willow is a hub for future fossil-fuel extraction that could expand outward from the project site. The project itself is expected to add about 260 million metric tons of carbon emission into the atmosphere over the next 30 years, the equivalent of an extra 2 million cars on the road each year for 30 years.
  • Exploration for mega-project stopped: Exploration intended to support developing a large project separate from Willow in the southern Reserve did get stopped for now in late August. The federal government settled a lawsuit we brought against the Peregrine oil exploration project and agreed to do a new impact review before approving any future work. If developed, Peregrine could produce 1.6 billion barrels of petroleum from the Reserve, more than twice what is projected from Willow.
  • Large threats remain: Progress against specific projects and protections limiting new leasing are important victories. But additional projects on existing leases could still result in the extraction of several billion barrels of oil in the coming years. We need the federal government to conduct a climate assessment across all the Reserve’s land open to leasing and development, and align policy here with federal climate goals. That assessment should point to an end to new projects here.

What is Earthjustice doing?

  • Refuge defended: Alongside other conservation groups and Indigenous organizations, Earthjustice challenged the Trump administration’s Arctic Refuge leasing plan. Today’s decision delivers a win by setting aside the leases and replacing the environmental impact statement with an updated analysis that could lead to greater protection for the Refuge’s irreplaceable natural resources.
  • Willow backlash: Earthjustice spoke out forcefully against the Willow Project, helping to galvanize widespread public opposition that saw more than 5.6 million letters sent to the White House and the Department of Interior.
  • Earthjustice lawsuits: When the Biden administration gave the project a green light, Earthjustice challenged Willow in court. A decision is expected this fall on whether the project can continue. Our legal efforts have already stopped the nearby Peregrine exploration project for now.
  • Celebrating new protections: We are thanking the Biden administration for these significant new protections – and we will continue to encourage progress with the coming public comment periods. Please add your voice.
A river with wildflowers growing next to it.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Brooks Range mountains, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images)