© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden convenes the fourth virtual leader-level meeting of the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on Energy and Climate at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
By Jarrett Renshaw and Nichola Groom
(Reuters) -The U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday will announce the cancellation of oil and gas leases in a federal wildlife refuge that were bought by an Alaska state development agency in the final days of the Trump administration, according to sources briefed on the matter.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) was issued seven leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who had pledged to protect the 19.6 million-acre (7.7 million hectares) habitat for polar bears and caribou.
Interior and AIDEA officials were not immediately available for comment.
The action is the latest effort by Biden to rein in oil and gas activities on public lands, part of a broader agenda to combat climate change.
Under Trump, the Interior Department in January 2021 sold leases in ANWR over the objections of environmentalists and indigenous groups. A Republican-passed tax bill in 2017 opened the area to oil and gas leasing and directed Interior to hold two lease sales by December 2024.
The oil and gas industry largely failed to embrace the 2021 lease sale, which generated just $14 million in high bids, mostly from AIDEA.
Months after the first and only ANWR lease sale, Biden’s administration said it would suspend the leases issued pending an environmental review. AIDEA later sued, and a federal judge in Alaska last month dismissed the state agency’s claims, saying the government’s delay in implementing the ANWR leasing program was reasonable.
The two other entities that won leases at the ANWR lease sale withdrew from their holdings in 2022.
For decades, Alaska officials pushed to open up drilling in ANWR to secure jobs and revenues for the state. Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan on Wednesday criticized Interior’s move.
“There is palpable anger and frustration among Alaskans about the Biden administration’s unrelenting assault on our economy and our ability to lawfully access our lands,” the Republican senator said in an emailed statement.
Alaskan oil production has dwindled in the last three decades. The state currently produces less than 500,000 barrels per day of , down from more than 2 million bpd in 1988, according to government figures.
Environmental groups praised Interior’s decision.
“We commend (Interior) Secretary (Deb) Haaland for canceling unlawfully issued oil-and-gas leases in the Arctic Refuge,” Abigail Dillen, president of environmental group Earthjustice, said in a statement. “Looking ahead, we hope to see the strongest possible protections for the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic in the years to come.”