Regulatory Tracker

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – Oil and Gas Development

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Quick Take

Secretary Haaland has suspended all activities related to the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Program while the Department of the Interior reviews the underlying environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision (ROD). A draft supplemental EIS is expected this summer, with litigation challenging the moratorium ongoing.

Why it Matters

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 19 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska. The refuge includes some of the most pristine, untouched lands and waters within the United States, with no roads, marked trails, or campgrounds. It is a critical area for the Porcupine caribou, denning polar bears, and other wildlife.

Under a 1980 law passed by Congress, the 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain is open to oil and gas development, but no lease sales were conducted until the Trump administration. In 2017, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which authorized oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production on the Plain, and ordered the Secretary of the Interior to conduct at least two lease sales within 10 years. On Jan. 6, 2021, the Department of the Interior (DOI) held its first lease sale, and conveyed nine of the 11 leases, totaling 437,804 acres, on the last day of the Trump administration.

Under President Trump, DOI also sought to expand oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve, which covers 22.1 million acres of land in northwest Alaska. For more information, visit our tracker page on the National Petroleum Reserve.

Current Status

On his first day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order placing a temporary moratorium on all activities relating to BLM’s Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program citing deficiencies in the underlying environmental review. On June 1, 2021, DOI Secretary Haaland suspended all activities relating to the issued leases while DOI evaluates the Trump administration’s environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision (ROD) underlying the Program. BLM plans to issue a draft supplemental EIS in the summer of 2022. The administration is still required by law to conduct a second lease sale in the Coastal Plain by December 2024 unless Congress is able to pass legislation undoing that provision of the Tax Act.

Prior administrations
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Dec. 6, 1960 DOI designates 9.8 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. DOI is tasked with managing the land “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.”

Dec. 2, 1980 Congress enacts the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to preserve over 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. The law renames the Range the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and adds over 9 million acres. Section 1002 of ANILCA authorizes oil and gas exploration in the 1.5 million acres in the Coastal Plain and orders the Interior Secretary to study the Coastal Plain, including the potential impact of oil and gas development and production in the area. Section 1003 of ANILCA establishes a prohibition on leasing, development, and oil and gas production in the rest of the Refuge.

April 1987 DOI completes and publishes the Coastal Plain Resource Assessment analyzing the likely environmental impacts of five management options. The Interior Secretary recommends Congress open the entire Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration. The report also includes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Congress continues to study the area but does not open the Coastal Plain to leasing for over three decades.

obama ADministration
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Jan. 27, 2015 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) publishes a Revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Final EIS for the Arctic Refuge. The plan considers five management alternatives and recommends that Congress designate around 12 million acres as Wilderness Study Areas, including the Coastal Plain. This would allow the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to implement policies to protect those areas’ natural conditions until Congress decides to designate them as wilderness areas. DOI’s Regional Director in Alaska signs the Record of Decision (ROD) adopting the Plan’s recommendations on April 3, 2015, but cannot begin managing the targeted areas as Wilderness Study Areas without Congressional authorization.

Trump ADministration
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Dec. 22, 2017 President Trump signs the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Section 20001 of the Act authorizes oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production on the Refuge’s Coastal Plain and orders the DOI Secretary to establish an oil and gas plan for the Coastal Plain, including requiring that two lease sales occur within 10 years of the Act’s passage. Both lease sales must include at least 400,000 acres. The first must be held before Dec. 21, 2021, and the second before Dec. 21, 2024.

April 20, 2018 BLM announces plans to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, initiating the scoping process for the EIS.

Nov. 8, 2018 Defenders of Wildlife files a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against DOI, FWS, and BLM seeking responses to six requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records related to oil and gas exploration, leasing, and development in the Arctic Refuge. All three agencies have yet to provide any responsive records. Defenders of Wildlife, v. Dept. of the Interior, et. al., No. 18-2572 (D.D.C.).

Dec. 20, 2018 BLM releases a draft environmental impact state (EIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Sixteen state attorneys general submit joint comments on the draft alleging that the EIS is inadequate and does not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

July 31, 2019 The Gwich’in Steering Committee and environmental NGOs file suit in the District Court for the District of Alaska against DOI for failure to comply with FOIA and DOI’s implementing regulations. Plaintiffs submitted FOIA requests in 2018 and 2019 seeking information about BLM’s planning process related to the proposed Coastal Plan Oil and Gas Program. Gwich’in Steering Committee et al., v. Dept. of the Interior et al., No. 3:19-00208, (D. Alaska).

Sept. 12, 2019 BLM releases the final environmental impact statement (FEIS), recommending the least protective alternative, which would allow oil and gas leasing on 1.56 million acres of the Arctic Refuge’s Coastal Plain. Secretary Bernhardt signs the Record of Decision (ROD) adopting this alternative on Aug. 17, 2020.

Aug. 24, 2020 The Gwich’in Steering Committee and conservation groups and a coalition of environmental organizations file two lawsuits in the District Court for the District of Alaska challenging BLM’s oil and gas leasing program in the Coastal Plain under multiple statutes, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and NEPA. Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00204 (D. Alaska); National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00205 (D. Alaska). Fifteen states led by Washington and three Tribes of the Gwich’in Nation file similar lawsuits on Sep. 9, 2020. Washington v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00224 (D. Alaska); Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government v. Bernhardt, No. 3:20-cv-00223 (D. Alaska).

Oct. 23, 2020 BLM releases a proposal to conduct seismic testing in the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge. BLM releases the environmental assessment for proposed seismic exploration on Dec. 16, 2020, including a draft Finding of No New Significant Impact (FONNSI) for the proposed seismic exploration in the Coastal Plain, with a two week comment period. DOI rejected a similar application to conduct seismic testing in Feb. 2019 due to concerns over the impacts of testing on local polar bear populations.

Nov. 17, 2020 BLM issues a call for nominations inviting representatives from the oil and gas sector to nominate tracts of land for auction before Dec. 17, 2020. However, ten days before that period ends, on Dec. 7, 2020, BLM announces its Notice of Sale for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, and that the lease sale will take place on Jan. 6, 2021.

Dec. 8, 2020 The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) releases a report finding that pre-drilling seismic surveys in the Arctic Refuge will harass, but not injure or kill, polar bears. The report is a precursor to the agency issuing an incidental take permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. for seismic surveys to assess the fossil fuel potential in the Coastal Plain.

Dec. 15, 2020 Plaintiffs in Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt file a motion to block BLM from issuing oil and gas leases and authorizing seismic testing in the Coastal Plain. Judge Gleason denies plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on Jan. 5, 2021, one day before the scheduled lease sale. No. 3:20-cv-00204 (D. Alaska).

Dec. 16, 2020 More than 100 lawmakers, led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), write to Secretary Bernhardt opposing BLM’s plans to conduct a lease sale and seismic exploration on the Coastal Plain. In their letter, House representatives argue that the administration “cut corners” violating ANILCA, NEPA, and the ESA. Click here to read the Senate letter; click here to read the House letter.

Dec. 18, 2020 BLM reduces the number of tracts in the Coastal Plain available for lease by about 30%, but will proceed with the scheduled lease sale on Jan. 6, 2021.

Jan. 6, 2021 DOI holds a lease sale for 22 sections of the Coastal Plain. Only half of the sections offered for sale receive bids, and in all but two cases, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) is the sole bidder. BLM’s Alaska branch conveys nine of the 11 leases sold on Jan. 19, 2021, totaling 437,804 acres.

Biden Administration
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Jan. 20, 2021 President Biden issues an Executive Order placing a temporary moratorium on all activities relating to BLM’s Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The order also explicitly grants the Attorney General authority to stay related litigation.

June 1, 2021 Secretary Haaland announces that the NEPA analyses conducted by the Trump administration regarding the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program were legally deficient. DOI temporarily suspends all activities relating to the existing leases while the agency conducts a new environmental analysis.

Aug. 4, 2021 BLM issues a notice of intent to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The release initiates the scoping process for the SEIS.

Aug. 31, 2021 The U.S. House of Representatives introduces a budget bill that, if passed, would repeal the Refuge’s oil and gas program, cancel leases already issued, and return payments to lessees.

Nov. 5, 2021 The Alaskan Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) files a lawsuit against the Biden Administration alleging that Secretary Haaland’s June 2021 order to suspend the Coastal Plain Oil & Gas Leasing Program violates the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which requires DOI to conduct a Coastal Plain lease sale by Dec. 22, 2021. On Jan. 19, 2022, the State of Alaska moves to intervene; the District Court grants Alaska’s motion on Feb. 11, 2022. Alaska Indus. Dev. and Exp. Auth. v. Biden, et al., No. 3:21-cv-00245-SLG (D. Alaska).

June 1, 2022 Regenerate Alaska, the only oil company to participate in the Jan. 6, 2020 Arctic Refuge lease sale, asks DOI to rescind its lease and refund the bid and lease rental payments. Regenerate Alaska is a subsidiary of Australian oil company 88 Energy Ltd. The two remaining leaseholders on federal lands in the Refuge are AIDEA (7 leases) and a real estate firm, Knik Arm Services LLC (1 lease).