Federal Judge Refuses to Block Oil Drilling Leases in the Arctic, Trump Plan to Proceed

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

A federal judge earlier this week declined to block the Trump administration from issuing leasing permits for oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The first-ever oil lease sale took place on Wednesday, according to Alaska Public Media, which reported on the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, a Barack Obama appointee:

It’s a win for the Trump administration, which has pushed to lock in drilling in the refuge in its final weeks, before President-elect Joe Biden takes office and can try to stop it. The Trump administration is offering 10-year leases to 22 tracts of land that cover about 1 million acres in the northernmost slice of the refuge, known as the coastal plain.

Gleason’s decision Tuesday came in three lawsuits filed this fall by an array of groups, including environmental organizations and the Gwich’in Steering Committee.In court documents, the groups argue that the federal government failed to follow numerous laws meant to protect wildlife, land, water and people when it crafted its oil-leasing program for the refuge. They then requested preliminary injunctions.

Gleason said the groups that filed the lawsuits failed to show that they’d suffer “irreparable harm” if leases were issued, since the oil companies would still have to get additional permits before drilling wells or searching for oil. Also, Gleason said she could not halt seismic exploration because the government hasn’t yet approved a proposal to do the work. She said the groups could try again for an injunction once the proposal is approved.

As Breitbart News reported, the oil leasing only impacts a very small portion of the vast refuge.

David Bernhardt, Interior Secretary, said that the oil drilling would be done on the coastal plain along the shores of the Arctic Ocean and would impact only 0.01 percent of the refuge’s 19 million acres.

The report noted Gleason’s decision would not stop broader efforts to stop the goal of U.S. energy independence.

“We will continue to press our case that the agency approved the program unlawfully and that its decision should be overturned,” Erik Grafe, an attorney with the left-wing group Earthjustice, said in a written statement.

U.S. Interior Department spokesperson Nicholas Goodwin said the development is not surprising and is welcome.

“The Department of the Interior looks forward to proceeding with appropriate dispatch to achieve the clear direction it received from Congress in 2017,” Goodwin said.

“After a decades-long debate, a Republican-led Congress opened the coastal plain to drilling in 2017,” the public radio station reported. “It also ordered the government to hold the first lease sale there by the end of this year.”

A left-wing group, As You Sow, decried the judge’s decision but also predicted that the incoming Joe Biden administration will make attacking the fossil fuel industry a pillar of its energy policy.

A press release from the group said:

With waning oil prices and an increasing number of banks saying they would not finance Arctic energy projects, major oil companies were uninterested in the leases. Instead, the state agency, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, was the main bidder. The agency put up all but two of the winning bids, which went to two small energy firms.

“Yesterday’s almost non-existent bidding for oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were not surprising,” Danielle Fugere, president of the organization, said. “It confirms what we already know to be true: the era of drilling for oil at any cost is over.”

“There is simply no realistic future scenario under which high-cost drilling in the Refuge will be viable,” Fugere said. “The world is awash in unneeded oil and gas reserves, the energy market is moving away from high-carbon fossil fuel energy, and the human and environmental costs of drilling in this highly sensitive area are too high.”

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