FAIRBANKS: A part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is seen in Fairbanks, Alaska. The 800-mile-long pipeline carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. – AFP
FAIRBANKS: A part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is seen in Fairbanks, Alaska. The 800-mile-long pipeline carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. – AFP

Oil and gas drilling blocked in Alaska wilds as Biden seeks green credentials

Over 13 million acres will come under new federal protection

WASHINGTON: The United States has blocked oil, gas and mining operations across tracts of unspoiled wilderness in Alaska, winning praise from environmentalists for safeguarding habitat for polar bears, caribou and other Arctic species. More than 13 million acres (5.2 million hectares) will come under new federal protection, while a permit to build a major road to access mineral deposits was denied in moves that angered industry bodies and some locals.

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world,” President Joe Biden said. “These natural wonders demand our protection.” But the state’s lawmakers in Washington slammed the measures, forming a bipartisan front to say they would fight to overturn them. “The Biden administration may be focused on short-term political gains, but at the expense of Alaska’s long-term future,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said, citing future jobs and national energy security.

Democratic Representative Mary Sattler Peltola said that the announcement failed to strike a balance between the need for gas and oil “and legitimate environmental concerns.” Ahead of the US presidential election in November, Biden is seeking to shore up his green credentials, which were damaged by a decision last year to green-light a project by US energy giant ConocoPhillips in Alaska. The Willow project, estimated to cost between $8-10 billion, was authorized under former president Donald Trump and later backed by Biden, triggering national protests by activists.

Arctic warming fast

The Interior Department on Friday said the new protections would help tackle the effects of global warming, which is degrading the Alaskan permafrost. “As the climate crisis imperils communities across the country, more must be done,” Biden pledged, adding that the new regulations would also support the subsistence economy and customs of Alaska Native people.

Friday’s announcement finalizes measures unveiled in September affecting the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), an ecologically important region for grizzly and polar bears, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. The American Petroleum Institute said that the decision was “misguided” and “at a time when the world is looking for American energy leadership, this is yet another step in the wrong direction.”

But environmental advocacy groups like Evergreen Action welcomed the announcement. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet “but that hasn’t deterred Big Oil from threatening delicate ecosystems and accelerating the climate crisis further by drilling for oil and gas,” said Evergreen’s Mattea Mrkusic. “We appreciate the Biden administration’s necessary step to strengthen protection.”

The actions announced Friday, ahead of Earth Day on Monday, follow a recent ban on drilling in 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea, ensuring all of US Arctic Ocean waters are now off limits to new oil and gas leasing. Biden and his Republican challenger Trump are in a close race for the White House, with a victory for Trump likely to see a reversal in environmental policies. As president, one of Trump’s first acts was to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and he has vowed, if reelected, to vigorously promote fossil fuel production. — AFP

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