It’s been a busy few weeks for environmental policy from the Biden Administration. Protections for multiple ecosystems, like forests, bays, and watersheds, were put into motion in the past few weeks. However, it isn’t all good news—some developments could lead to the possibility of more oil drilling in Alaska. Here’s the good and bad news from sustainability, conservation, and energy policy coming out of the White House in the past week.

USDA moves to protect Tongass National Forest

On January 25, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized protections for Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. The forest is currently the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. The USDA’S final rule repeals the 2020 Roadless Rule, banning logging and road construction on 9.37 million acres of public land. 

[Related: Under a new policy, federal agencies will have to weigh the climate costs of their actions.]

“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of Tribal Nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”

This protected area is called a “roadless area” and is home to not only a hunting and fishing wilderness, but old-growth timber and minerals that are sought after by mining companies. These resources are invaluable to Alaska’s economy and livelihood.

“The Tongass National Forest has provided for the people of this land since time immemorial and in many ways, the forest is the lungs of the world,” Gloria Burns, Vice President of the  Ketchikan Indian Community Tribal Council, said in a statement. “The reinstatement of the Roadless Rule is an important step. I come from a family of weavers and we rely culturally, spiritually, and economically on a thriving and healthy old growth forest.”

Department of the Interior curbs the future of Twin Metals Mine 

On January 26, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order that closed 35 square miles of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota to any mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years. Two decades is the longest period of time that the department can sequester the land without approval from Congress. The move aims to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and surrounding watershed.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input.”

[Related: What Indigenous fire practices can teach us about saving Southwestern lands.]

The Twin Metals Mine is a proposed underground copper, nickel, and other mineral mine that would be built southeast of Ely, Minnesota near Birch Lake by mining company Twin Metals Minnesota. Birch Lake flows into the Boundary Waters. In a statement, Twin Metals Minnesota said it is disappointed in the decision and remains “ committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”

EPA moves to block Pebble Mine 

On January 31, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it is blocking the Pebble Mine project.   The controversial gold and copper mining project was to be located at the headwaters of Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. Since the project’s inception in 2005, the giant open pit mine has been a major environmental concern from local indigenous groups and environmentalists, due to its proximity to a world-famous salmon fishery and numerous fears that mining activity would devastate the region.

The EPA invoked a rarely used “veto authority” under the Clean Water Act in order to “protect the most productive salmon fishery in the world.” This is only the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act that a federal agency has done this. 

The region is home to abundant salmon runs that provide crucial food to Indigenous Alaskans of Bristol Bay including the Dena’ina, Yup’ik, and Alutiiq tribes. This watershed supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America (sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink).

In a recent interview with High Country News, Alana Hurley, a Yup’ik commercial and subsistence fisher based out of Dillingham, Alaska said “for our people, from an Indigenous perspective, just knowing that this threat isn’t hanging over us any longer is so liberating. In terms of being able to refocus our energy into all these other areas that need our focus, and our hearts and minds to be attuned to, [this] is going to be huge. It’s a new day for us.”

Executives at Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd’s Pebble Partnership said that they would continue to fight the move, claiming that the EPA “continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics.” 

More oil drilling could be coming to Alaska

On February 1, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BOEM) advanced the Willow oil drilling project. The controversial project on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is an $8 billion oil drilling project by ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer,. The project is favored by some in Alaska’s Congressional delegation for job creation and domestic energy production.

The Interior Department estimates that the project would produce 629 million barrels of oil over the three decades, releasing around 278 million metric tons of carbon emissions. According to the Center for American Progress, that’s equivalent to what 76 coal-fired power plants produce every year.

[Related: What successful forest restoration looks like.]

BOEM’s final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) recommends a slightly smaller version of the five sites proposed by ConocoPhillips, with three drilling sites recommended. The department also recommends other measures to lower pollution and a smaller road and pipeline footprint. 

In a statement, the Interior department said the department “has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence.”

This analysis is the Willow project’s last regulatory hurdle before the federal government can make a final ruling on whether to approve it. The Biden administration has 30 days to issue their final decision.

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