U.S. Starts Process to Open Arctic to Offshore Drilling, Despite Federal Lawsuit

Environmental groups are challenging President Trump’s move to revoke an Obama-era order that had put the same waters off-limits to oil and gas production.

Early exploratory wells in the American Arctic didn’t produce enough oil or gas, and with falling oil prices, many large companies abandoned plans for the region. New attempts are running into other challenges. Credit: Sgt. Aaron M. Johnson/U.S. Air Force

Early exploratory wells in the American Arctic didn’t produce enough oil or gas, and with falling oil prices, many large companies abandoned plans for the region. New attempts are running into other challenges. Credit: Sgt. Aaron M. Johnson/U.S. Air Force

The Trump administration has begun the process to open a large area of federal waters off Alaska to oil and gas drilling, taking comments on a plan for drilling that is already being challenged in court.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced on Thursday that it is going to start accepting comments from the public about bringing oil drilling to roughly 65 million acres of offshore waters in the Beaufort Sea and plans to hold a lease sale in 2019.

The waters have been in dispute since early in the Trump administration. In one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama had placed them off limits to drilling. And in one of his early acts as president, Donald Trump moved to overturn that with an executive order of his own.

In response, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued in a federal court in Alaska on behalf of about a dozen environmental organizations. The case is far from over. Last week, a federal judge in Alaska heard oral arguments in the case. She is expected to rule in the next three to five months.

"The proposed lease sale overlaps with the area President Obama withdrew, and can only proceed if President Trump's order attempting to revoke the Obama protection is lawful," said Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney for Earthjustice's Alaska regional office.

BOEM: Court Case Doesn't Block Planning

Obama's drilling ban relied on his powers under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 (OCSLA), which allows a president to withdraw certain areas from production. The environmental groups have argued that OCSLA clearly gives presidents the right to permanently withdraw areas from drilling, and that only Congress can add those lands back in.

"It's our contention that President Trump doesn't have the authority to revoke President Obama's protections," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is part of the lawsuit. "They were permanent and were put in place for very, very good reasons."

In its announcement Thursday, BOEM said it intends to prepare an environmental impact statement for a 2019 lease sale in the Beaufort Sea, and it published dates for a series of public meetings to be held in Anchorage and across Alaska's North Slope in December. The comment period will be open for 30 days from the announcement's publication in the Federal Register, expected Friday.  

BOEM spokesman John Callahan said the litigation won't affect the timing of the proposed lease program and doesn't have to be resolved before the government starts planning. He said the agency expects to publish drafts of both a lease plan and an environmental impact statement by the end of this year.

Oil Spill Concerns Led to Obama's Decision

Obama's decision to withdraw the Arctic waters from drilling were made in part out of concern for what would happen should an oil spill occur there. The move "reflect[s] the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region's harsh conditions is limited," a White House release said at the time. 

"The Arctic is incredibly fragile, and we shouldn't be drilling there," said Monsell. "It's incredibly dangerous, and science tells us that all known resources there must stay in the ground if we're going to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. This announcement does just the opposite."

Last month, the Trump administration gave final approval to Hilcorp to drill for oil from an artificial island it would build in the federal waters along Alaska's North Slope, a project that was leased before the moratorium. That project has already run into trouble amid rising global temperatures, though, because the island's construction requires a large amount of shore-fast sea ice to carry equipment and gravel to the site, and that ice has failed to form this year as expected. 

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