Biden administration bans mining and drilling in Alaskan wilderness

The Biden administration on Friday denied permission to an Alaska agency to build a 211-mile (340-kilometer) industrial road that would cut through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and reach copper and zinc deposits beneath pristine wilderness.

In addition, the administration said it planned to maintain protections for 28 million acres of land across Alaska that the Trump administration had tried to open to mining and oil and gas drilling. The lands include unique habitat for three large caribou herds, migratory birds and Pacific salmon.

The two Interior Department decisions are part of a steady stream of environmental actions President Biden has taken ahead of the November election to shore up his standing with conservationists, a key constituency. Climate activists have been pushing the administration to take more aggressive action to protect public lands from new oil and gas projects.

“Today, my administration is preventing a 131-mile road from fragmenting a pristine area that Alaska Native communities rely on, in addition to the steps we are taking to maintain the protection of 28 million acres in Alaska from mining and drilling,” Biden said in a statement. “These natural wonders demand our protection.”

In blocking the road, known as the Ambler Access Project, the government prioritized the conservation and protection of tribal communities dependent on hunting and fishing in the area over mineral development that could enable more clean energy to make.

The proposed industrial road was considered essential to achieve an estimated $7.5 billion copper deposit. Ambler Metals, the mining company behind the project, has said the copper it is seeking is crucial to making wind turbines, photovoltaics and transmission lines needed for renewable energy.

Ambler Metals accused the Biden administration of rejecting the road based on “not the project, but national politics in an election year.” The company said it would “explore all legal, legislative and regulatory avenues to move it forward.”

The year-round two-lane gravel road would pass through the Brooks Range foothills and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, crossing 11 rivers and thousands of streams before reaching the site of a future mine . The area is home to some of the world’s most ecologically sensitive wildlife. Because it would cross federal land, a permit from the Department of the Interior was required.

The Interior Department found that a road would disrupt habitats, pollute salmon spawning grounds and threaten the hunting and fishing traditions of more than 30 Alaska Native communities. The agency concluded that any version of an industrial road would cause “significant and irrevocable” damage to the environment and tribal communities.

The Trump administration approved the permit for Ambler Road in 2020.

After Mr. Biden was elected, the Interior Department ordered a new analysis, saying the road’s impact on the environment had not been adequately studied by the previous administration. In April, the department said it would recommend against any proposed version of the road.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to manage America’s public lands for the benefit of all people,” Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “In Alaska, that means ensuring we consider the impacts of proposed actions on Alaska Native and rural users.”

The other Interior Department decision concerns so-called D-1 lands in Alaska, which were removed from development in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The Trump administration planned to end protections for approximately 28 million acres of D-1 land. Shortly after Mr. Biden took office, the Interior Department declared the Trump administration’s move legally flawed and launched a new environmental review.

That study found that withdrawing protections would likely harm subsistence hunting and fishing in as many as 117 communities, and could cause lasting damage to wildlife, vegetation and the frozen ground known as permafrost. The Interior Ministry has recommended that the country retain federal protection.

Tribal leaders in Alaska praised the decisions.

“I have had the privilege of growing up in a very special place. I am Neltsene, I am from the Bear clan,” Julie Roberts-Hyslop, the first chief of the Tanana tribe, said in a statement.

“Alaska is one of the most pristine places on earth, and I feel an obligation to protect it for our future generations,” she added. “Our tribes are excited about this positive news.”

Frank Thompson, chief of Evansville, an Alaskan native village at the foot of the Brooks Range, said his tribal council had been fighting the project for eight years. “Today is a happy day,” he said.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, which unanimously supported the road project, is expected to challenge the decision.

Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, said last week that he had added an amendment to an annual defense bill that would force the Interior Department to choose a path for the project, calling the Biden administration’s move “lawless.”

Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native to represent the state in Congress and Alaska’s only Democrat in Congress, said in a statement that she still believed there was “a path forward” for the Ambler Road project.

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