Judge allows Trump auction of Arctic refuge drilling rights

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife

The Trump administration’s sale of oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will go forward Wednesday, after a federal judge rejected a request by environmentalists to block the auction.

The decision is a victory for the administration, which has been racing to issue oil leases in the refuge’s coastal plain before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Biden has vowed to permanently protect the refuge, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for his administration to cancel formally issued oil leases.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, Alaska, rebuffed arguments by the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Native Alaskans that the auction would cause irreparable damage. While there is a risk of “bureaucratic momentum” from the sale, the court can issue an injunction preventing other activity on leases even after they are issued, she said.

“Plaintiffs may be correct that, over time, they may be significantly injured as a result of the planned lease sales on the Coastal Plain,” Gleason said. “But these future and cumulative potential effects do not demonstrate the irreparable harm necessary for preliminary injunctive relief at this time.”

The administration argued that the leases themselves don’t authorize any ground-disturbing activity and subsequent permits are needed to conduct seismic research or begin drilling. Environmentalists had asked the court to block those seismic approvals too.

“Today’s ruling is disappointing but does nothing to change the strength of our lawsuit or our resolve,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said by email. “We will fight to protect the lands that nourish the Porcupine caribou herd and our people, no matter how long it takes or where it takes us.”

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to open sealed bids beginning 10 a.m. Wednesday Anchorage time. It isn’t clear who will participate, given the current economic environment, regulatory uncertainty and steep public opposition to Arctic drilling. Companies once viewed as potential bidders for Arctic acreage have slashed spending this year as the coronavirus pandemic eroded crude demand and prices.

The cases are National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, 3:20-cv-00205, Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt, 3:20-cv-00204, and Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government v. Bernhardt, 3:20-cv-00223, U.S. District Court, District of Alaska (Anchorage).

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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