Biden Administration to Suspend Oil Leases in Arctic Refuge

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The Canning River forms the northwestern border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and runs through the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.



Photo:

Lisa Hupp/USFWS

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration suspended oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the latest move in its effort to block plans to begin the first-ever drilling program in the pristine 19-million-acre wilderness.

The Interior Department said on Tuesday the program will be on hold until it completes a “comprehensive analysis” under the National Environmental Policy Act.

A review, ordered by President Biden on his first day in office, identified what it said were defects in the Trump administration’s final decision to approve new oil leases in the refuge, according to the Interior Department, which added a more thorough analysis could lead to the leases being voided altogether.

The department said the approval didn’t properly analyze “a reasonable range” of alternatives for allowing and managing oil development while mitigating environmental harm.

The refuge—a remote corner of northeast Alaska that is about the size of South Carolina—is home to polar bears and caribou herds. It has been off limits to drillers, miners and other developers for decades. Mr. Biden has sided with environmentalists who say the area should remain pristine, protected wilderness.

However. Congress passed a mandate to lease oil rights in the coastal plain of the refuge in its tax overhaul in 2017, when both the House and Senate were in Republican control.

Former President

Donald Trump’s

administration finished the first lease sale just days before Mr. Trump left office, potentially locking in those drilling rights even though no major oil companies were among the bidders.

Tuesday’s decision follows a series of court arguments this spring in which the Biden administration supported oil and mining projects on federal land. That angered environmentalists who supported Mr. Biden’s campaign. But it improved his standing with some lawmakers in Western oil-producing states, whose support Mr. Biden will need to get his nominees and initiatives through Congress.

Among the projects supported by the Biden administration were

ConocoPhillips

’ Willow oil project in Alaska; the Resolution Copper Mining project in Arizona by

Rio Tinto PLC

and

BHP Billiton Ltd.

; and the Dakota Access Pipeline by

Energy Transfer LP.

Write to Timothy Puko at tim.puko@wsj.com

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