Biden Limits Oil Drilling Across Alaska’s Petroleum Reserve

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(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration on Friday finalized a plan to prevent oil development across more than half of the US government’s mammoth petroleum reserve in Alaska and set the stage to block road construction essential to opening a copper mine in the state.

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The twin moves are among a string of actions by President Joe Biden to curtail extractive development on federal lands and wall off more than 41 million acres for conservation. They come as Biden seeks to garner support from young, climate-minded voters with his record safeguarding land and combating global warming, after disappointing some last year by authorizing Conocophillips’s massive Willow oil project.

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world, sustaining a vibrant subsistence economy for Alaska Native communities,” Biden said in an emailed statement. “These natural wonders demand our protection.”

The moves have drawn condemnation from oil, gas and mining interests who said the Biden administration is locking up resources essential to fueling America’s energy needs today and in the future. That includes, they say, critical minerals for batteries and other technology.

Under the plan advanced by the Interior Department on Friday, future oil leasing and development is limited across 13 million acres of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve Alaska designated as “special areas.” And leasing is completely blocked across 10.6 million acres of the reserve.

The agency also will formally seek public recommendations on whether to further expand protected special areas there.

Read More: Biden Plans Sweeping Effort to Block Arctic Oil Drilling

The measure has widespread implications for companies with holdings or interests in the reserve, including ConocoPhillips, Santos Ltd., Repsol SA and Armstrong Oil & Gas Inc. The new regulation will apply to existing leases within the area, though it won’t alter the terms of those contracts or affect currently authorized activities under them, such as the 600 million-barrel Willow project.

The measure drew a swift rebuke from oil and gas interests, with prices roiled by tensions in the Middle East.

“At a time when we wake up to more unrest in the Middle East and the world is demanding more oil and gas, the administration is making it clear they’d rather see production from other countries who have dismal environmental and human rights records,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Critics have already vowed to battle the rule in court. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, said opponents could seek to overturn it on Capitol Hill. As it stands, he said, the regulation amounts to a sanction on domestic energy supplies, even as unfriendly regimes such as Iran and Russia are free to use their resources for self-enrichment.

Yet environmentalists celebrated the measure, saying it represented a welcome evolution in the US government’s approach to the reserve, first set aside as a source of energy for the Navy a century ago and now one of the nation’s largest stretches of unspoiled land.

The NPR-A is “a vast region of tundra and wetlands teeming with wildlife and globally recognized for its ecological value,” said Jeremy Lieb, an attorney with Earthjustice. The regulation is an important step to defend the “cherished landscape from further fossil fuel development that would threaten these irreplaceable lands and waters — and our climate.”

Meda DeWitt, the Wilderness Society’s interim Alaska state director, praised Biden for presiding over a suite of regulations that together “constitute a comprehensive shift toward a more holistic conservation, climate and community-centric approach to managing public lands.”

In a related move Friday, the Interior Department recommended against authorizing a right-of-way essential to allow construction of a 211-mile (340-kilometer) road needed to access a copper and zinc deposit in northern Alaska. That sets the stage for a full denial of the state-backed Ambler Road project in about 30 days.

In its final environmental impact statement issued Friday, the agency concluded the road would significantly and irrevocably impact key resources, as it crossed over streams and habitat used by migrating caribou. The road was seen as the only economically viable way to transport minerals from the region to market.

(Updates with response from industry group and other details from eighth paragraph.)

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