The Biden administration has scrapped a Donald Trump-era drilling programme by suspending oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife refuge.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued the order – which comes after a temporary moratorium on oil and gas lease activities imposed by President Joe Biden on his first day of office.
Mr Biden has been against drilling in the region and called for permanent protections during the presidential campaign.
The US leader’s executive order on 20 January also suggested a new environmental review was needed to address possible legal flaws in the Trump administration’s drilling programme under a 2017 law enacted by Congress.
Following a review, the US Department of the Interior said it “identified defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives” required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The 19.6 million-acre refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other wildlife, such as migrating birds from six continents.
Republicans and the oil industry have long tried to open up the oil-rich refuge, which is considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich’in, for drilling.
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However, Democrats, environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes have been trying to block it.
The Interior Department’s order was cheered by Democrats and environmental groups, while Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation criticised the move, describing it as misguided and illegal.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, welcomed the suspension of the Arctic leasing programme, saying it was the result of a flawed legal process under Mr Trump.
She said that more action is needed as she called for a permanent cancellation of the leases and repeal of the 2017 law mandating drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain.
The drilling mandate was included in a massive tax cut approved by congressional Republicans during Mr Trump’s first year in office.
She added: “Suspending these leases is a step in the right direction, and we commend the Biden administration for committing to a new programme analysis that prioritises sound science and adequate tribal consultation.”
Alaska senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with representative Don Young and governor Mike Dunleavy, who are all Republicans, criticised the Interior Department action in a joint statement.
Mr Sullivan said suspending the Arctic leases “goes against the law, facts, the science and the will of the Native communities on the North Slope”.
He added: “It is nothing more than a naked political move by the Biden administration to pay off its extreme environmental allies.”