A federal judge in Alaska has declared that President Trump’s order revoking a sweeping ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans is illegal, putting 128 million acres of federal waters off limits to energy exploration.
The decision late Friday by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason is the third legal setback this week to Trump’s energy and environmental policies. The judge, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2012, also on Friday blocked a land swap the Interior Department had arranged that would pave the way for constructing a road through wilderness in a major national wildlife refuge in Alaska.
Earlier in the week, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock, who was appointed by President Reagan, ruled that Interior's Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service illegally approved two gas drilling plans in western Colorado. The judge said officials did not adequately analyze wildlife and climate impacts in their plans — which were challenged by a coalition of environmental groups — to drill 171 wells in North Fork Valley, which provides key habitat for elk and mule deer.
Trump’s rollbacks of Obama-era conservation policies have suffered nearly two dozen setbacks in federal court, largely on procedural grounds. Though the administration is appealing many of these decisions and holds an advantage if the cases reach the Supreme Court, the rulings have slowed the president’s drive to expand fossil fuel production in the United States.
Earlier this month, for example, a federal judge halted drilling on more than 300,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming. Friday’s decision on offshore drilling could affect a five-year leasing plan the administration intends to issue in the summer, as well as block the six offshore lease sales it proposed to schedule in the Arctic Ocean starting as early as this year. The decision Friday applies to 98% of the Arctic Ocean, as well as undersea canyons in the Atlantic spanning 3.8 million acres, stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to New England.
“President Trump’s lawlessness is catching up with him,” Erik Grafe of Earthjustice said in a statement Friday. Grafe was the lead attorney from the environmental law organization who argued to reinstate Obama’s leasing withdrawals in the Arctic and Atlantic.
“The judge’s ruling today shows that the president cannot just trample on the Constitution to do the bidding of his cronies in the fossil fuel industry at the expense of our oceans, wildlife, and climate,” he said.
Industry officials, however, said the administration could forge ahead with its offshore drilling process as litigation continued. They also noted that the withdrawals did not cover the entire Eastern Seaboard.
“While we disagree with the decision, our nation still has a significant opportunity before us in the development of the next offshore leasing plan to truly embrace our nation’s energy potential and ensure American consumers and businesses continue to benefit from U.S. energy leadership,” said Erik Milito, vice president of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute.
But Grafe noted that the five-year plan the administration intends to issue this year sets a schedule for lease sales, which is now barred in the areas designated by Obama.
"I think they'd have a hard time scheduling a lease sale in a place that's now permanently off-limits," he said.
The Interior Department declined to comment Saturday.
In her Friday ruling, Gleason wrote that the law in which Congress gave the president authority over offshore drilling — the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act — expressly allows for leasing withdrawals but does not state that a subsequent president can revoke those withdrawals without congressional approval.
“As a result, the previous three withdrawals issued on January 27, 2015 and December 20, 2016 will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress,” she wrote.
Rebecca Logan, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, said in an email that members of her oil and gas trade group did not see the decision as the final word.
"Anything done by administrative action can be undone by administrative action," Logan said.
In a separate decision earlier in the day, Gleason found that then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not provide sufficient justification for reversing the government’s stance on whether to allow a small, remote Alaska town to construct a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Residents of King Cove have argued for years that they need to bisect the refuge, which has been protected for decades and provides a crucial rest stop for migratory waterfowl, for medical evacuations under rough weather.
In a statement Friday, local leaders there vowed to continue their fight.
“The people of King Cove deserve to have access to a higher level of care, especially when the unforgiving weather prevents them from traveling from their isolated community by air or boat,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin Osterback. “This land exchange would have accomplished that.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also promised to continue pushing for building the road, which otherwise would be prohibited in a wilderness area. “I will never stop until this road is a reality and the nearly 1,000 residents of this isolated community have a lifeline for emergency medical care,” she said.
Opponents counter that the federal government has provided millions of dollars in funding to give town residents alternative forms of transport, and warn that a road would fragment critical habitat. They also cite expert testimony that any road through the refuge would be impassable during snowstorms.
“Here, the Secretary’s failure to acknowledge the change in agency policy and his failure to provide a reasoned explanation for that change in policy are serious errors,” Gleason wrote.