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New Rules Protect Millions of Acres of Alaska’s Western Arctic from Future Oil Drilling

What just happened: The Biden administration unveiled new, final regulations that will help preserve 13 million acres of ecologically sensitive lands inside the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, by increasing protections from oil and gas development. These regulations will completely prohibit any new oil-and-gas leasing for 10.6 million acres in the Reserve that have been designated as Special Areas.  

Why it matters: Oil and gas development has transformed some swaths of the Western Arctic, which includes the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, into floodlit industrial zones. Essential habitats have been carved up by drilling rigs, roads, airstrips, and mines. So far, this has been limited to a relatively small portion of this vast landscape. But the oil industry has its sights set on much more. These new protections will safeguard some of the most ecologically important areas from development, conserving habitat for migratory birds, polar bears, caribou, and other iconic Arctic species, while strengthening federal authority to protect precious landscapes like these.  

The problem

  • Stronger protections are needed: Bids for new fossil-fuel drilling spiked dramatically during the Trump administration, and fossil fuel development could continue to transform this vast landscape if nothing is done to protect undeveloped areas. Because of the climate impact of fossil fuel development, what happens in America’s Arctic impacts everyone on Earth. Our climate is on the line.  
  • The Special Areas of the Western Arctic are a biodiversity powerhouse that supports polar bears, musk oxen, migrating caribou, birds from around the globe, and other unique wildlife. These are some of the best intact ecosystems left in the U.S., supporting a distinct diversity both of Arctic wildlife found nowhere else in the world and of birds that hatch here and then migrate throughout the world. All of this would be harmed by oil and gas exploration. 
  • Our planet can’t afford more oil projects: Earthjustice is dedicated to transitioning away from fossil fuels to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. We must keep Arctic oil in the ground if we want to avert a climate catastrophe. Since 2005, a full 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have come from fossil fuel extraction from our public lands and waters. As climate change intensifies, we must protect our public lands instead of auctioning them off to the highest bidder 

What’s included in the new protections:

  • Preserving precious habitat: The regulations ensure maximum protection for more than 13 million acres of Special Areas—federally determined ecologically sensitive landscapes—in and around the Reserve, increasing safeguards for habitat for migratory birds, polar bears, caribou, and other iconic Arctic species.
  • Halting new fossil fuel projects: They establish an outright prohibition on any new oil-and-gas leasing for 10.6 million acres.
  • Honoring Alaska Native rights: The new protections encompass the right of subsistence activities for Alaska Native communities. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also encouraged exploring co-stewardship opportunities with surrounding Alaska Native Tribal communities for management of the Special Areas.
  • Reestablishing federal authority: The regulations clarify and strengthen the BLM’s authority to protect the environment across the entire Reserve.

Next up: Willow and other fights to protect the Arctic

  • Eyes on Willow: The new protections do not undo ConocoPhillips’ widely condemned Willow Project, which a federal district court in Alaska declined to halt last fall.
  • Earthjustice is challenging the project on behalf of conservation groups and is awaiting a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Looking ahead, more is needed to ensure that the oil industry does not cause further damage to the Reserve, a region that has abundant oil reserves and is already warming four times as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change.
Three caribou walk across a marsh of water and green grass.
Caribou make their way across the Lake Teshekpuk area of northern Alaska. (Kiliii Yuyan for Earthjustice)