Court Upholds Suspension of Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

August 8, 2023: On Monday, the District Court for the District of Alaska upheld the Biden Administration’s suspension of all oil and gas leases and development activities in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, soundly rejecting the legal challenges from the sole remaining leaseholder, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (“AIDEA”). The Refuge is sacred to indigenous communities in Alaska and Canada, including the Gwich’in people. The Coastal Plain also encompasses critical maternal denning habitat for polar bears, and is important habitat for caribou, migratory birds, and many other animals. Though long protected from development, the 2018 Tax Act opened the Coastal Plain of the Refuge to oil and gas leasing and the Trump Administration issued leases based on that statute.

Shortly after taking office, President Biden issued an Executive Order requiring the Secretary of Interior to exercise her authority to pause activities under the Refuge oil and gas program to conduct a review of alleged legal deficiencies with that program and the leases issued under Trump. (Sierra Club and allies, including the Gwich’in Steering Committee, had legal challenges to the leases and program pending in the District of Alaska at that time). The Secretary then issued an order conceding legal errors and initiating a supplemental environmental review, during which all authorizations under the program would be suspended temporarily. The Bureau of Land Management accordingly suspended all leases and the Bureau and Fish and Wildlife Service refused to process applications from AIDEA to conduct exploration activities. AIDEA brought suit, arguing that the President, Secretary, and Bureau lacked legal authority to suspend the leases and development program and that the suspension was inconsistent with requirements of the 2018 Tax Act, which opened the Refuge to leasing and development, among other claims. The State of Alaska intervened as a plaintiff.

Sierra Club, as part of a coalition of allies led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, intervened to defend the suspension decision. Sierra Club was represented by ELP attorney Karimah Schoenhut and Trustees for Alaska attorneys. Native Alaskan sovereigns—the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council, and Venetie Village Council, represented by Native American Rights Fund attorneys—also intervened to defend the suspension. 

As a result of the District Court’s decision rejecting AIDEA and Alaska’s challenges, the Refuge leases and development program will remain suspended while the Biden Administration continues with its supplemental review process and reconsideration. No authorizations for on-the-ground activities, such as harmful seismic exploration which imperils newborn polar bear cubs, can be authorized during the suspension. Keeping the suspension in place is part of the much broader campaign, led by the Gwinch'in Steering Committee and supported by colleagues across Sierra Club, to prevent oil and gas development from ever happening in the Refuge, and to restore the statutory protections that were removed by the 2018 Tax Act.    

The case is AIDEA v. Biden et al., No. 3:21-cv-00245-SLG, (D. Alaska). The district court issued its decision and entered judgment for Defendants on Aug. 7th.