Federal judge could rule as soon as Tuesday on request to halt oil leasing in Arctic refuge

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop in October 2010.
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop in October 2010. (Public domain photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A federal judge in Anchorage says she could rule as soon as Tuesday on a request by environmental groups to block the Trump administration from carrying out the first-ever lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The government is planning to hold the sale Wednesday morning.

It’s a major moment in a 40-year fight over whether to drill for oil in the northernmost slice of the refuge, called the coastal plain.

But looming over the sale are four lawsuits, filed by environmental organizations, tribal groups and a coalition of 15 states. In court documents, they argue that the Trump administration’s oil-leasing program for the refuge is rushed and legally flawed.

In three of the lawsuits, the groups are requesting a preliminary injunction.

Basically: They want U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason to stop the government from issuing any oil leases for the refuge, and from allowing any seismic work to explore for oil there until the broader lawsuits are resolved.

On Monday, Gleason heard arguments by videoconference on why she should — and shouldn’t — intervene.

Lawyers for The Audubon Society and three other environmental groups told Gleason that the Trump administration failed to comply with a series of environmental laws designed to protect the refuge, and didn’t disclose the potential global-warming consequences of oil development.

They also said massive seismic trucks rolling across the tundra to search for oil this winter would harm the refuge. And, they argued, that if oil leases are issued, it’ll be harder for the government to ever reverse course.

“Those leases transfer rights,” said Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover. “It makes it difficult for BLM to change its mind and undo decisions later.”

On the other side Monday were lawyers for the federal government, the North Slope Borough, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation and oil and gas industry trade groups. They told Gleason that the lawsuits were premature. Even if a company got an oil lease, it would still need other approvals to develop the land, said Attorney Paul Turcke, with the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Issuance of an oil and gas lease does not have any direct effects on the environment, since it does not authorize drilling or any other ground-disturbing activities,” Turcke said.

Gleason said she aims to have a decision by the end of the day on Tuesday.

A map shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain broken into numbered tracts, with some of them shaded gray in the southeast corner to show which pieces of land have been removed from the upcoming lease sale.

Meanwhile, the deadline has already passed for companies to submit their bids to the federal Bureau of Land Management for the oil lease sale.

BLM Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters said Monday that the agency had received bids in the lease sale, but she declined to say how many or who they came from.

The agency says it will open the bids during an event streamed online Wednesday, starting at 10 a.m.

The government is offering drilling rights to 22 tracts of land that cover about 1 million acres of the coastal plain, or roughly 5% of the refuge.

After the sale, the leases still must go through a review process before they’re finalized. That usually takes about two months, but it’s likely the Trump administration will try to complete the process before it leaves office on Jan. 20.

In the lead-up to Wednesday, big questions remain about how much interest the oil industry has in the leases, and what the changing administration will mean.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he opposes drilling in the refuge, and will permanently protect the land, but hasn’t said how.

Read next