Biden cancels leases for drilling in pristine Alaska wilderness

Interior Department also withdraws two leases being considered for area around Gulf of Mexico

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Thursday 12 May 2022 15:29 BST

Related video: Oil Prices Spike as US Seeks Massive Crude Purchases

The Biden administration has cancelled an oil and gas lease in Alaska while high gas prices pose political problems for the president.

The decision by the US Interior Department stops the opportunity to drill for oil in more than a million acres of the Cook Inlet in the southern parts of the state.

The department said in a statement obtained by CBS News that a “lack of industry interest in leasing in the area” led to the decision to “not move forward” with the sale of the lease. The department also withdrew two leases being considered for the area around the Gulf of Mexico, citing “conflicting court rulings that impacted work on these proposed lease sales”.

According to federal law, the department has to adhere to a five-year leasing plan for the auctioning of offshore leases. The current five-year plan was set to end at the end of this month and the department had until that point to complete the sales.

The White House had stayed quiet about the Alaska sale until now, but ending the leases is in line with Mr Biden’s election promises to combat the climate crisis.

But as gas prices rise, sticking to those promises is becoming politically difficult.

An anonymous environmental advocate told CBS News that “they don’t want to get hit by the Republicans in light of the high gas prices”.

“They’re getting killed on attacks based on inflation. The most visible sign of inflation is high gas prices,” the advocate said.

This photo provided by BP shows the company's Prudoe Bay oil field facility in in Prudoe Bay, Alaska

A part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is seen on September 17, 2019 in Fairbanks, Alaska

A CBS reporter was copied on an email in which White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy said that “the Cook inlet sale was cancelled. It is not proceeding”.

But another White House official quickly responded that Ms McCarthy had spoken too soon and Interior Department officials said a final decision hadn’t been reached. But the department then announced the move on Wednesday.

Frank Macchairola at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas trade association in the US, told CBS that the cancellation of the Alaska lease was “another example of the administration’s lack of commitment to oil and gas development in the US”.

“The president has spoken about the need for additional supplies in the market, but his administration has failed to take action to match that rhetoric,” Mr Macchairola said.

He added that it wouldn’t play “well” politically.

“In the kind of price environment that we’re seeing, there are negative consequences to shutting off oil and gas development, both politically and practically,” he said.

According to AAA, the national average price of regular gas was $4.42 on Thursday – an all-time high.

Environmental groups welcomed the Biden administration’s decision. The Alaska lease could have made available more than a million acres for drilling over the course of 40 years or more, leading to new underwater pipelines and platforms in an area considered environmentally sensitive.

“I’m glad Cook Inlet belugas won’t be forced to face even more oil drilling in their only habitats, but much more must be done to protect these endangered whales from offshore drilling,” Kristen Monsell, the Oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Independent in a statement. “To save imperilled marine life and protect coastal communities and our climate from pollution, we need to end new leasing and phase out existing drilling.”

The organisation added that “lease sale 258 would have opened up drilling in more than 1 million acres of federal waters in Cook Inlet, an area that is home to the critically endangered beluga population that has fewer than 300 whales left. The federal government predicted that oil activity in this area would have caused one large oil spill and approximately 410 small spills over the 40 years of drilling under the lease sale”.

Drew Caputo of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice told CBS that those leases could have been in use for more than a decade before making a dent in gas prices.

“It’s good for the climate, which can’t handle new oil and gas development,” he said. “It’s good for Cook Inlet because offshore drilling is dangerous and disruptive. And it’s good for the people of Cook Inlet, including native people, who cherish the inlet in its natural state. So it’s a really good thing.”

According to a recent poll, 69 per cent of those taking part disapproved of Mr Biden’s handling of inflation and 65 per cent thought he “could do more” to decrease gas prices.

Mr Macchiarola said, “unfortunately, this is becoming a pattern - the administration talks about the need for more supply and acts to restrict it. As geopolitical volatility and global energy prices continue to rise, we again urge the administration to end the uncertainty and immediately act on a new five-year program for federal offshore leasing”.

“The scientists are telling us the time to shift from fossil fuel energy is not years from now,” Mr Caputo said. “It’s today. We need to end offshore oil leasing.”

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