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Biden administration expected to cancel drilling leases in Alaskan wildlife refuge

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The Biden administration is expected make its boldest move yet to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by canceling oil and gas leases in Alaska’s vast, remote coastal plain that had been awarded by the previous administration, according to two people familiar with the plan.

The leases were awarded under President Donald Trump to Alaska’s state-owned economic development agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

The refuge is believed to sit atop some 11 billion barrels of oil, but is also home to grizzly and polar bears, snowy owls, migrating waterfowl and herds of moose and caribou. Canceling the leases is likely to set the stage for a legal battle over the fate of the land.

An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority did not respond to a request for comment. In August it called the U.S. District Court ruling a disappointment, saying canceling leases would hurt the state’s ability to create jobs and revenue.

“Jobs are critical for our state,” Randy Ruaro, the industrial development and export authority executive director, said in a statement at the time, adding “This is especially true for rural areas such as Northern Alaska.”

In 2017 Congress passed, and Trump signed, a tax law that not only authorized but required leasing in the wildlife refuge. The move overturned six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of untouched wilderness in the United States.

One lease sale was held, but most oil companies stayed on the sidelines. The sale attracted only three bidders, including the state.

President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, signed an executive order halting Arctic drilling and later suspended the leases granted under the Trump administration.

John Leshy, a public lands expert who served in the Interior Department during the Carter and Clinton administrations noted that the state was the only leaseholder left in the refuge. The Biden administration could have standing to cancel those leases if it found that environmental reviews and other compliance measures on the leases had been inadequate.

The state of Alaska “would doubtless contest that in court,” Leshy said. He added that the outcome was not predictable.

“The bigger picture here is that no one but the state sees any future in drilling the refuge,” he said.

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