Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of the Inupiaq village of Nuiqsut, at the area where a road to the Willow project will be built in the North Slope of Alaska, March 23, 2023. The Interior Department said it will not permit construction of a 211-mile road through the park, which a mining company wanted for access to copper deposits. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of the Inupiaq village of Nuiqsut, at the area where a road to the Willow project will be built in the North Slope of Alaska, March 23, 2023. The Interior Department said it will not permit construction of a 211-mile road through the park, which a mining company wanted for access to copper deposits. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Biden shields millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness from drilling and mining

The Biden administration expanded federal protections across millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness on Friday, blocking oil, gas and mining operations in some of the most unspoiled land in the country.

The Interior Department said it would deny a permit for an industrial road that the state of Alaska had wanted to build through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in order to reach a large copper deposit with an estimated value of $7.5 billion. It also announced it would ban drilling in more than half of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an ecologically sensitive expanse north of the Arctic Circle.

Together, the two moves amount to one of biggest efforts in history to shield Alaskan land from drilling and mining. They are expected to face challenges from industry as well as from elected leaders in Alaska, where oil and gas revenues make up much of the state’s budget and where mining is a main driver of the economy.

“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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Part of an environmental blitz ahead of Earth Day, the Alaska announcements are designed to help Biden cement his climate and conservation legacy and win back voters still angry over a decision he made last year to approve Willow, an $8 billion oil drilling project in Alaska.

Over the past several weeks, the administration has announced strict new emissions limits for automobiles; raised the cost to drill and mine on public lands while making it easier to conserve those federal lands; and issued a host of regulations to restrict toxic chemicals in the air and drinking water. Biden has also expanded the boundaries of several national monuments.

“From safeguarding sacred lands near the Grand Canyon to protecting Alaskan treasures, my administration has conserved more than 41 million acres of lands and waters,” Biden said. “But as the climate crisis imperils communities across the country, more must be done. My administration will continue to take ambitious action to meet the urgency of the climate crisis, protect America’s lands and waters and fulfill our responsibility to the next generation of Americans.”

The Interior Department has determined there should be “no action” on a proposal to build a 211-mile industrial road through the Brooks Range on federal land that has been untouched by humans. Known as Ambler Road, the proposed two-lane gravel road would have crossed 11 rivers and thousands of streams before it reached the site of a copper deposit.

The Interior Department found that the road would significantly and irrevocably disturb wildlife habitat, pollute spawning grounds for salmon and threaten the hunting and fishing traditions of more than 30 Alaska Native communities. The agency is expected to formally deny a road permit for Alaska’s state economic development agency in the coming weeks.

Conservationists and tribal leaders called the government’s decision a historic victory.

Chief Brian Ridley, chair of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 villages in interior Alaska, said the Ambler Road decision “is a monumental step forward in the fight for Indigenous rights and environmental justice.”

But Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said blocking the road was “lawless,” and Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat from the state, called it “disappointing.”

Farther north, the Interior Department finalized a rule that withdraws 13 million acres of Arctic tundra from future oil and gas drilling. It ensures “maximum protections” in more than half of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a swath of pristine wilderness on the state’s North Slope, bounded by the Chukchi Sea to the west and the Beaufort Sea to the north.

That decision would not affect the Willow project, the biggest new oil field in decades in Alaska, which is expected to produce up to 180,000 barrels per day for the next 30 years.

Republicans said that cutting off millions of acres from oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would weaken national security, lead to higher energy prices and deprive Alaska of billions of dollars in tax revenues.

“The Biden administration is fine with our adversaries producing energy and dominating the world’s critical minerals markets while shutting down those in America,” Sullivan said at a news conference on Thursday, joined by the state’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, and nine other Senate Republicans.

Biden “is destabilizing our security as a nation in a way most didn’t think possible,” Murkowski said. She accused the Biden administration of wanting to “lock up Alaska.”

American oil production is at record levels and the United States is the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Oil industry leaders suggested they would challenge the legality of the administration’s actions.

“This misguided rule from the Biden administration sharply limits future oil and natural gas development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, a region explicitly intended by Congress to bolster America’s energy security while generating important economic growth and revenue for local Alaskan communities,” Dustin Meyer, the senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main lobbying group, said in a statement.

The rule also widened a rift among Alaska Natives already split over the future of fossil fuels in the Arctic, an area both deeply threatened by climate change and dependent on oil for jobs.

As the planet warms from greenhouse gas emissions linked to oil, gas and coal, Alaska is heating up at a faster rate than the lower 48 states. That means the state is experiencing more coastal erosion, melting permafrost and sea ice, unstable ground and more wildfires.

At the same time, about 95% of the $410 million annual budget of the North Slope Borough, which abuts the petroleum reserve, comes from local taxes on oil and gas operations. “There is no other economy for our region,” said Doreen Leavitt, director of natural resources for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, about 600 miles north of Anchorage, was established in 1923 as a source of oil for the U.S. Navy.

It is the largest single swath of public land in the United States. Despite having “petroleum” in its name, some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the Arctic Coastal Plain is found within the reserve.

“It is so misunderstood by the public,” said Gerrit Vyn, a producer and cinematographer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has documented migratory birds in the Arctic.

“People think of it as just a wind-swept tundra, but the NPR-A is the largest area of wetlands in the polar Arctic, with the highest density of nesting shore birds anywhere in the world,” Vyn said.

Areas that will be protected under the decision by the Interior Department include habitat for grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Administration officials said they viewed the new actions as a “firewall” against both future fossil fuel leasing and the expansion of existing projects on the North Slope.

The Interior Department said the move came in response to concerns from Alaska Native communities that have relied on the land, water, and wildlife to support their way of life for thousands of years.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is a former mayor of Nuiqsut, an Inupiat community of just 550 people and the closest village to the Willow site.

“For too long, oil and gas executives have been prioritized over our voices and the needs of the communities who live here,” Ahtuangaruak, who now runs an environmental group in Alaska, said in a statement.

She added, “The administration must continue to build on these critical protections for protecting wildlife habitat and the health of our Alaska Native communities, so that we may continue to sustain and pass along the traditions and activities of our elders for years to come.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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