Conservative groups contend that Mr. Biden’s suspension of the leases may be illegal. “The government cannot enter into a contract to take over $14 million and then invalidate the contract without cause,” said Devin Watkins, an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that worked with the Trump administration in its efforts to roll back environmental protections. “No cause for canceling the ANWR leases has been provided.”
Policy experts also noted that any moves by Mr. Biden to block Arctic drilling could be undone by a future administration.
“Since the Carter administration, whether ANWR can be leased is determined by which party is in the White House,” said Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer who served in the Interior Department during the Trump administration. “Developers in ANWR assume there will be a policy shift between Democrat and Republican administrations. But it’s not permanent, assuming there will someday be another party in the White House.”
Environmental groups applauded the move but called for a permanent ban on Arctic drilling.
“Until the leases are canceled, they will remain a threat to one of the wildest places left in America,” said Kristen Miller, acting director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Now we look to the administration and Congress to prioritize legislatively repealing the oil leasing mandate and restore protections to the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain.”
The refuge, 19 million acres in the northeastern part of the state, had long been off limits to oil and gas development, with Democrats, environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups successfully fighting efforts to open it.
But President Donald J. Trump made opening a portion of it, about 1.5 million acres along Prudhoe Bay that is known as the Coastal Plain, a centerpiece of his push to develop more domestic fossil fuel production.
In 2017, the Congress included language in a tax bill establishing a leasing program as a way of generating revenue for the federal government. But an environmental review, required under federal law, was only completed last year.