President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, in Washington, D.C. The administration announced plans Jan. 20 for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the refuge considered sacred by the Gwich’in. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, in Washington, D.C. The administration announced plans Jan. 20 for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the refuge considered sacred by the Gwich’in. (Alex Brandon/AP)

U.S. President Joe Biden halts oil and gas lease sales in ANWR

“Its great to have an ally in the White House”

Gwich’in leadership in the Yukon and Alaska are applauding a decision by the new U.S. President Joe Biden to halt oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

“The President’s support honours the Gwich’in way of life and his swift action sends a clear message that the voices of the Elders of our Nation, and the lives of the children and grandchildren of our Nation, matter,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, in a statement.

“This moment belongs to all of us and I know we will all be taking some time to celebrate today and to reflect on the journey which has led us here,” added Lorraine Netro, also of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

The administration announced plans Jan. 20 for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the refuge considered sacred by the Gwich’in.

The plans, along with other executive actions, came on Biden’s first day in office.

Issuing leases had been a priority of the Trump administration following a 2017 law calling for lease sales, said Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Alaska.

The agency held the first lease sale for the refuge’s coastal plain on Jan. 6. Eight days later, Ellis-Wouters said, it signed leases for nine tracts totalling nearly 1,770 square kilometres. The issuance of leases was not announced publicly until Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s last full day in office.

Biden has opposed drilling in the region, and drilling opponents hope the executive action is a step toward providing permanent protections, which Biden called for during the presidential campaign.

His order cites “alleged legal deficiencies” underpinning the oil and gas lease program in calling on the Interior secretary to, “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government” related to implementing the program. The order also calls on the secretary to review the program and potentially conduct a “new, comprehensive” environmental review.

Pending lawsuits challenge the adequacy of the environmental review process undertaken by the Trump administration.

Malkolm Boothroyd, campaign director for CPAWS Yukon, the only Canadian non-profit named in the lawsuit challenging the leases, said he is feeling relieved about the decision.

“It’s really exciting news. After these last four years it is exciting to get to work towards protection of the Arctic refuge instead of just trying to limit the damage,” he said.

“Essentially they’ve suspended this oil and gas leasing program. That includes putting the brakes on seismic testing which was slated to start at the beginning of February, pending the finalization of their permit. So it’s great to see that that pressing danger has been diverted,” Boothroyd said. “It’s great to have an ally in the White House.”

Premier Sandy Silver took a moment during the COVID-19 press conference to recognize the new inauguration and said he looks forward to closer relationships with Alaska.

Asked what he meant, Silver said, “I think it just gives us pause.

“We have a new administration and we know that we have new things to consider with overall conversations. One thing that comes to mind for me is the Porcupine caribou herd and good to see a federal government that will hopefully be more supportive of progression.”

Several Alaskan officials, including U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Mike Dunleavy expressed disappointment with the decision to halt the oil and gas sales.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, said the state “does responsible oil and gas development in the Arctic better than anyone, and yet our economic future is at risk should this line of attack on our sovereignty and well-being continue.”

Drilling critics have said the area on the Beaufort Sea coast provides habitat for wildlife including caribou, polar bears, wolves and birds — and should be off-limits to drilling. The Gwich’in on both sides of the border have raised concerns about impacts on a caribou herd on which they have relied for subsistence and culture.

“It is so important that our young people see that we are heard, and that the president acknowledges our voices, our human rights and our identity,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement.

With files from The Associated Press

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

ANWRCaribouVuntut Gwitchin First Nation

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