Center for American Progress

Project Decisions in Alaska Will Help Define Biden’s Conservation and Climate Legacy
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Project Decisions in Alaska Will Help Define Biden’s Conservation and Climate Legacy

From a potential Arctic oil drilling hub to a mine that threatens one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries, a series of upcoming project decisions in Alaska are poised to shape the Biden administration’s conservation and climate legacy.

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Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is pictured.
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is pictured, August 2001. (Getty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Steven Chase)

A series of upcoming decisions in Alaska are uniquely poised to shape the contours of President Joe Biden’s conservation and climate record. Biden has already taken action—including in the Tongass National Forest and Northern Bering Sea—to restore damage done by the Trump administration’s attempted sellout of Alaskan forests, wildlife, and waters. However, the Biden administration faces strong pressure from stakeholders in the extractive industry and their political allies not to finish the job.

Due to Alaska’s size, unique natural resources, and amount of federally owned land, these decisions will have an outsize impact on the nation’s overall climate and conservation progress. Of all federal lands in the United States—the national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and more—more than 36 percent, or 222 million acres, are in Alaska. And while Alaskan lands make up 18 percent of the United States in area, they contain approximately 53 percent of U.S. carbon stock. Furthermore, the state is home to 231 federally recognized Alaska Native Tribes, which make up nearly 20 percent of the state’s population,  and many rely on intact public lands for subsistence harvesting for sustenance, cultural, and spiritual reasons.

With so much at stake—from community subsistence rights and world-class fisheries to the nation’s climate trajectory—how the Biden administration navigates these important decisions will have a massive imprint on Alaska and the rest of the country.

A new report from the Center for American Progress highlights proactive conservation opportunities in Alaska, such as restoring protections against drilling and mining for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Alaska and acting on related Indigenous-led management proposals. However, the Biden administration must soon decide on several massive projects that threaten to cut the other direction. These drilling, mining, and road projects could significantly undermine the president’s climate and conservation goals and put at risk high-carbon permafrost, the cultural heritage and subsistence rights of Alaska Native communities, and Alaska’s $7.3 billion outdoor recreation economy. Several of these projects are highlighted below. Other projects that would have significant conservation implications include a proposed road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the massive Donlin Gold mine proposed for Southwest Alaska.

Read CAP’s full report

Willow Master Development Plan

The Biden administration will soon decide the fate of a massive oil drilling project proposed by ConocoPhillips for the Western Arctic. The Willow oil drilling project could be responsible for up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of a third of all U.S. coal plants. Moreover, Willow is seen by the oil industry as the “next great Alaska hub” for a network of oil infrastructure that stretches far beyond the currently proposed project. President Biden’s BLM should reject the proposal. Additionally, it should update regulations to manage the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska—the single largest parcel of public lands in the country—in line with the administration’s commitments to pursuing environmental justice for Indigenous people, fighting climate change, and protecting wildlife.

Ambler Road Project

The Ambler Road Project is a proposed 211-mile access road through undeveloped lands in Northwest Alaska that is intended to facilitate the development of a hard-rock mining district adjacent to the homeland of several Alaska Native communities. The project, which was initially approved under the previous administration, is currently being revisited by the U.S. Department of the Interior based on concerns about the road’s impacts and the legality of the approval decisions. In that reanalysis, the Biden administration should reject the project before it permanently changes this remote Alaskan wilderness, polluting rivers, creeks, and wetlands; impairing the migration route for the state’s largest caribou herd; and threatening Alaska Native communities who have long depended on these resources.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas leases

The biological heart of the Arctic Refuge—one of the last truly wild places in the country, the birthing ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, and a sacred place to the Gwich’in people—was opened to oil and gas leasing through the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill. Notably, the first lease sale under that program was an epic failure, bringing in less than 1 percent of the promised revenue. Two of just three total bidders recently pulled out of their leases, and the only remaining leaseholder is the state of Alaska. The Department of the Interior should immediately cancel the remaining leases on the basis of the well-documented legal deficiencies and ensure that any mandated second sale is administered with appropriately protective standards.

Pebble Mine

Proposals for a massive, open-pit, copper and gold mine threaten the spawning grounds and watershed that sustain a salmon fishery supplying half of the world’s sockeye salmon. Acting on a petition from Alaska Native Tribes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) undertook a scientific assessment, which confirmed the threat to the Bristol Bay ecosystem, and initiated action in 2014 under the Clean Water Act to prevent Pebble Mine from being permitted. The Trump administration reversed the EPA’s action before changing course again in 2020 by rejecting a Clean Water Act permit submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers. With a new proposed Clean Water Act determination released in May 2022, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan appears ready to finally block this dangerous and unpopular project. He should finish the job.

See also

Conclusion

With so much at stake—from community subsistence rights and world-class fisheries to the nation’s climate trajectory—how the Biden administration navigates these important decisions will have a massive imprint on Alaska and the rest of the country. Fortunately, the administration’s approach to conservation in Southeast Alaska could serve as a useful model.

Following efforts by the Trump administration to roll back conservation protections for the Tongass National Forest—the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest—the Biden administration responded in 2021 with a comprehensive approach that addressed the need for conservation, climate change, and community economic development. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy aims to restore critical “roadless rule” protections for the Tongass and end large-scale commercial logging, while simultaneously investing $25 million in new, near-term financial and technical assistance to support sustainable economic growth and community development.

While each of the decisions above pose unique questions, adhering to similar principles—including deep commitments to climate, conservation, Alaska Native rights and sovereignty as well as community support and engagement—would serve the administration well in the months ahead.

The authors would like to thank CAP’s Jarvis Holliday, Steve Bonitatibus, and Sam Hananel as well as our external reviewers, particularly the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Authors

Drew McConville

Senior Fellow

Jenny Rowland-Shea

Director, Public Lands

Michael Freeman

Policy Analyst

Explore The Series

Branches are pictured in Death Valley National Park.

President Joe Biden made a historic commitment to escalate the pace of U.S. conservation and put the nation on a trajectory to conserve 30 percent of its lands, waters, and oceans by 2030. His administration has made important progress through its "America the Beautiful" initiative, but the intertwined crises of nature loss, climate change, and inequitable access to nature demand more urgent action. Fortunately, President Biden has a suite of executive authorities at his disposal, and this series from the Center for American Progress offers a number of tangible opportunities and policy recommendations to help the president to deliver on his promise.

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