Judge Rules Against Trump, Reinstates Oil Drilling Ban in Arctic Waters

Photo: Devin Powell (NOAA via AP)

In a major blow to the Trump administration’s energy plans, a federal judge has declared the president’s attempt to open up the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas drilling illegal. The ruling restored permanent protections put in place by the administration of President Barack Obama that covers over 120 million acres of Arctic waters.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason stated in a ruling made public on Friday that Trump had exceeded his presidential authority when issuing an April 28, 2017 executive order ending the Obama administration’s ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

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Obama issued the ban under the authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), created in 1953. Plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, led by Earthjustice on behalf of additional environmental groups, argued that while OCSLA allows presidents to withdraw from offshore oil leasing and development, it does not give future presidents the authority to reinstate that development. Congress would have to write legislation to allow a president to do that, the judge said.

Obama issued the ban during his second term, and it became a key component of his administration’s environmental legacy.

Trump, however, had attempted to reopen the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to offshore drilling, as Alaska Public Media reported. Currently, there is no offshore oil and gas drilling in the American Arctic Ocean, Earthjustice noted. These waters provide crucial habitat for seals, walruses, bowhead whales, and polar bears.

A government analysis cited by the environmental group noted that a 75% chance exists that an oil spill would occur if just one of those leases were developed. The region’s remoteness makes cleanup of a potential spill nearly impossible.

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In the Atlantic, Obama’s ban also protects 31 biologically important deep-water canyons.

The Trump administration had planned to issue a five-year leasing plan this summer, and to sell six offshore leases in the Arctic possibly this year, The Washington Post said. 

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“President Trump’s lawlessness is catching up with him,” Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said in response to Friday’s decision. “The judge’s ruling today re-affirms that we are a nation of laws and shows that the president cannot just trample on the constitution at the expense of our oceans, wildlife, and climate.”

The Trump administration is expected to appeal.

As the Post pointed out, Judge Gleason’s ruling was the third legal setback handed to the Trump administration this week regarding its pro-industry energy policies. The same judge blocked an effort by the Interior Department to facilitate a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Another judge ruled that the same department illegally approved two gas drilling projects in Colorado.

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And earlier this month, the Interior Department was called out by a watchdog group for allegedly hiding nearly 20 documents outlining the impacts of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as our sister site Earther reported. The Trump administration is trying to open up the ANWR’s 1.6 million-acre coastal plain to drilling, which would have devastating consequences for local habitat, for climate change, and for members of the Gwich’in First Nation, which is fighting the plans, calling them a human rights violation.

According to Earther, the Trump administration hopes to begin seismic testing in the refuge later this year.

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