With all the recent devastating news about climate change induced catastrophes all across the country and the world a bit of hopeful news may have been lost in the noise. On September 6, in an historic move, the Biden Administration canceled all existing oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and restricted leasing on the rest of the federal lands on the North Slope of Alaska.

The fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the North Slope of Alaska has been fought over for over 50 years. The ecologically fragile and super rich wildlife wilderness habitat has been recognized as America’s Serengetti. It still has migratory caribou herds with numbers in the tens of thousands, rare musk ox, polar bears, and millions of waterfowl that nest in the tundra before migrating south the the Lower 48 states and other destinations. It also has oil and gas underlying the wildlife habitat that is coveted by the state of Alaska and some oil companies anxious to drill and burn every possible pocket of oil regardless of the environmental and climate risk. 

The Arctic Refuge is also vital to the land-based Indigenous Gwich’in people, who depend on the caribou for their subsistence and cultural survival.  The migratory Porcupine Caribou herd concentrate and give birth to their young each year in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain – right where the oil companies want to drill and develop.  

“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in announcing the lease cancellations. “President Biden is delivering on the most ambitious climate and conservation agenda in history. The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations.”

In addition to canceling the leases in the Arctic Refuge the Biden Administration proposed new regulations for the Western Arctic that would ensure maximum protection for the more than 13 million acres, while supporting subsistence activities for Alaska Native communities. These bold initiatives add to Biden’s actions to protect millions of acres of lands and waters in the Arctic, including withdrawing approximately 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea, ensuring the entire United States Arctic Ocean is off limits to new oil and gas leasing.

Biden’s move is politically bold as well as scientifically essential. His predecessor, Donald Trump, working with the Republican-controlled Congress during his first two years, added a provision requiring the leasing of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to their massive 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy legislation. The theory was that the falsely projected giant oil leasing revenues would help offset the cost of the tax breaks for billionaires. This never panned out. Gwich’in and environmental groups lobbied banks and oil companies not to fund or bid on Arctic Refuge leases when they were offered. This paid off because banks pledged not to fund the development and no major oil companies bid on the leases when they were offered. In the end only an Alaska state corporation took up the leases, while other existing leaseholders forfeited their leases realizing drilling in the Arctic was bad business. The state corporation is now rushing to challenge the lease cancellation in court.  

This epic struggle is far from over. Ultimately, we need Congress to designate the Arctic Refuge and other key parts of the Western Arctic as wilderness and permanently withdraw them from any future industrial development. But that will take a much more favorable Congress so this immediate administrative action is an essential interim reprieve. 

President Biden made pledges during his campaign to end new fossil fuel development on federal lands to address the climate crisis, but he has abandoned this pledge and disappointed climate justice advocates by approving some major new leases, most noticeable the Willow Project in the Arctic. Still, it must be noted that he has successfully championed more climate justice actions than any prior administration.  

Biden’s historic conservation and climate agenda, which already includes protecting more than 21 million acres of public lands and waters across the nation, and securing the Inflation Reduction Act, is the largest investment in climate action in history. This latest action to protect the Arctic adds to that legacy and demonstrates to the world that the United States is serious about setting an example and leading on addressing the climate crisis. 

Much more must be done, and, as the International Energy Agency notes, most of the existing dirty fossil fuel leases on public and private lands need to be left undeveloped to have any hope of keeping global temperatures from rising to intolerable and life threatening levels. We need all decision makers at all levels of government and private industry to finish the job by rapidly transitioning us to a clean energy economy, before it is too late.  Do it, for our families, for our future, and for all the special and fragile natural areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton is a Third Act volunteer organizer and the former national Conservation Director of the Sierra Club. He has been working alongside Gwich’in allies to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil development for over 50 years.