Without options in Congress, Murkowski urges lawsuit over ANWR

  • Interior Secretary Debra Haaland’s department announced on June 1 that it is suspending leases sold in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve coastal plain. The lease sale was required under a provision in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was authored by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is urging the state to sue the federal government over the decision. (Photo/Leigh Vogel/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

It took nearly four decades to get a bill opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain for oil exploration to the desk of a president who would sign it, but several months after the first lease sale the state’s congressional leaders are mostly relegated to the sidelines as the Biden administration has suspended the highly contentious program.

When Interior Department officials announced June 1 they would be suspending the ANWR oil and gas leasing program, they were making a common bureaucratic move to review actions by the prior administration for legality’s sake.

In that regard, suspending the leasing program finalized in the last months of the Trump administration is akin to Interior under Biden reviewing the environmental impact statement for ConocoPhillips’ $6 billion Willow oil project on the North Slope. However, with the Willow review Interior leaders ultimately decided to back the Trump administration’s approval of the development in lawsuits challenging its adequacy in late May court filings.

For that, Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan lauded Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for supporting the oil project because of the potential jobs and revenue it could provide the state.

A similar outcome is much less likely in the case of the ANWR leasing suspension, as it would also be an initial step towards making good on a campaign promise to reverse the prospect of energy exploration in the uniquely positioned refuge.

And despite the rider hitched to the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act by the delegation requiring Interior to develop and conduct an oil and gas leasing program in the coastal plain, there appears to be little they can do about it.

Murkowski said in a lengthy statement provided by her office that she wasn’t surprised when the administration suspended the lease program but she was “incredibly disappointed” Interior did so to leases that have already been issued and patented. She also asked for help from state officials.

“I don’t understand how Interior can take that position. Through the natural resources title that I authored in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, Congress mandated in statute the establishment of an oil and gas leasing program in the non-wilderness coastal plain of ANWR. The department doesn’t get to pick and choose which laws to follow,” Murkowski said in the statement.

“Since the federal land manager is choosing not to follow the law, unfortunately the only option to uphold Congress’ explicit direction is to use the court system. Consequently, I urge the State of Alaska and other leaseholders to sue the Biden administration to implement the law.”

When asked about options to counter the administrative move, Alaska Oil and Gas Association representatives declined to comment, citing an ongoing lawsuit the trade group is a party to. AOGA intervened as a defendant in a suit by national environmental groups challenging the Trump administration’s environmental considerations in the ANWR leasing plan.

Nate Adams, a spokesman for Sullivan, wrote via email that the senator is considering “all options at his disposal to counter the Biden administration’s misguided decision to suspend leases in the (coastal plain).”

A second lease sale in which at least 400,000 acres are offered must be held before December 2027 to comply with the schedule laid out in the tax bill.

An Interior spokesman wrote in response to questions about complying with the 2017 tax law that the department had nothing more to offer beyond the June 1 press statement announcing it would “initiate a comprehensive environmental analysis to review the potential impacts of the program and to address legal deficiencies in the current leasing program’s environmental review under (the National Environmental Policy Act).”

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority dominated bidding in the Jan. 6 lease sale, collecting nine of the 11 awarded lease tracts. Small firms won the two other leases and no major oil companies bid in the first ANWR sale.

Many industry insiders now believe the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska covering much of the western North Slope, and where Willow is located, is a much more attractive development region for its geology and political considerations.

The state-owned development bank also intervened as in the lawsuit to defend the leasing program and attorneys representing AIDEA from the national firm Holland and Hart roundly denied all the claims in the suit in their initial answer brief.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
06/09/2021 - 9:28am