Written by: Kimberly White 

The U.S. Administration has nixed three oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska. The three sales would have opened up more than a million acres of ocean to oil and gas drilling.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the cancellation of the three oil and gas lease sales, citing a “lack of industry interest” as well as “conflicting court rulings.”

“Due to lack of industry interest in leasing in the area, the Department will not move forward with the proposed Cook Inlet OCS oil and gas lease sale 258,” the Interior Department said in a statement to CBS. “The Department also will not move forward with lease sales 259 and 261 in the Gulf of Mexico region, as a result of delays due to factors including conflicting court rulings that impacted work on these proposed lease sales.” 

The Interior Department’s decision has been welcomed by Indigenous communities and environmentalists who have long opposed the Cook Inlet sale, warning of the threat development posed to this vital ecosystem. 

Alaska’s Cook Inlet is home to an endangered population of beluga whales. The region’s beluga whale population has suffered a severe 75 percent decline, falling from approximately 1,300 individuals in 1970 to an estimated 279 individuals today. The proposed sale would have occurred in parts of Cook Inlet that are critical habitat for the endangered cetaceans. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 and Endangered Species Act listing, the population has continued to decline. Tourism, fishing, pollution, and oil and gas developments are likely contributors. 

Offshore exploration typically relies on seismic surveys, a process where airguns towed behind ships release a series of intense impulses of compressed air into the water. These intense impulses are blasted every 10 to 12 seconds for up to 12 hours per day, says the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). The blasts, which reach more than 250 decibels and can be heard across thousands of miles, drown out whale calls and can cause permanent hearing loss and other serious injuries as well as disturb feeding and breeding behaviors. 

Indigenous communities in the region strongly opposed the lease sale, calling on President Biden to cancel the sale earlier this year. 

In a February op-ed published by the Washington Post, John Kvasnikoff, Chief of the Village of Nanwalek, described the damage the oil and gas lease could have.

“If this sale occurs, our waters will be littered with a maze of pipelines, giant platforms flaring into the night and ongoing pollution and spills. The industrialization of this productive area will spell the end of our subsistence lifestyle,” wrote Kvasnikoff. 

Kvasnikoff noted that his village still suffers from the trauma caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than 30 years ago.

The government failed to contact many of the 20 tribes and Indigenous communities that would have been affected by the now-canceled lease sale, according to the NRDC

“We’re very concerned that our government should be doing better in talking to tribes and asking them what they want for these lands they’ve managed from time immemorial,” stated Liz Mering, Cook Inletkeeper Advocacy Director.

While the cancellation of the three oil and gas leases is a move in the right direction, it is imperative that the United States ceases new leasing and phases out offshore drilling, says Kristen Monsell, Oceans Program Legal Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“I’m glad Cook Inlet belugas won’t be forced to face even more oil drilling in their only habitats, but much more must be done to protect these endangered whales from offshore drilling,” said Monsell. “To save imperiled marine life and protect coastal communities and our climate from pollution, we need to end new leasing and phase out existing drilling.”

The Biden administration came under fire last year after plans were announced to lease out millions of acres of public waters for oil leasing despite campaign promises to the contrary. The U.S. administration had announced plans to open up millions of acres for oil and gas exploration in response to an order by a federal judge in Louisiana. 

The cancellation of the three leases has prompted backlash from some, citing misleading claims that new leases would help address rising gas prices. 

However, NRDC Senior Policy Analyst Lauren Kubiak points out that there is enough oil and gas in existing leases to ensure that production could proceed at current levels for more than ten years without leasing new areas. 

“In our federal waters, oil and gas companies already have the rights to 11 million acres of ocean for drilling, and they are using less than a quarter of that to drill on,” explains Kubiak. “In these leased areas are 4,652 million barrels of ‘proved plus probable’ oil reserves and 6,103 billion cubic feet of natural gas reserves for a combined total of 5,740 million barrels of oil equivalent. ‘Proved plus probable’ reserves means that they are ‘discovered, recoverable, commercial and remaining’ and economically viable under current conditions. In addition to these, there are substantially greater amounts of ‘discovered’ oil and gas resources.”

“Because of these significant leased resources, offshore production is projected to remain high even without leasing new areas,” adds Kubiak. 

Some have noted that the backlash is nothing more than a rallying cry from a dying industry.

“Big Oil is using anything they can find to try to extend the life of a dying fossil fuel industry. They are lying when they say they need more leases,” Oceana Campaign Director Diane Hoskins told the Washington Post. “We cannot drill our way out of high gas prices, and it would take years or decades for any new leases to begin producing.”

The current mandatory five-year plan for offshore drilling is set to expire in June 2022, which means that the Interior Department will not be able to hold any new oil and gas lease sales until a replacement plan has been completed. While the government is legally obligated to prepare a new plan, no proposals have been announced.