A federal judge in Alaska dealt a major blow late Friday to the Trump Administration’s plan to allow drilling for oil and gas in the ocean waters off the North Slope of Alaska and in deep-sea canyons in the Atlantic Ocean.  President Obama used his statutory authority under the law governing ocean oil and gas drilling to “withdraw” these areas from ANY subsequent plan to lease them out, but three months after taking office, President Trump “revoked” the Obama decision.  Judge Sharon Gleason, an Obama appointee, held that the law was explicit in giving the President authority to “withdraw” lands but silent about “revocation” of a withdrawal, and thus the President Trump’s action was illegal.  

  • A coalition of environmental and Native American groups challenged President Trump’s revocation, arguing that only Congress can overturn President Obama’s withdrawals.  The oil and gas lobby disagreed, saying it was not right that one President could permanently withdraw areas (and potentially the entire U.S. offshore) from oil and gas leasing.
  • President Barack Obama withdrew approximately 120 million acres of Arctic Ocean (98% of the U.S. Arctic waters) and about 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic (areas stretching from Massachusetts to Maryland) from leasing and those withdrawals are now back in effect.
  • Most of the offshore areas of the U.S. have been off limits to drilling since 1988.  President George H.W. Bush first placed much of the U.S. offshore (other than the Western Gulf of Mexico) off limits to oil and gas leasing — but only for ten years.  President Clinton extended that drilling ban for another ten years.  President George W. Bush did not extend the ban.  President Obama ultimately decided late in his second term to withdraw permanently these specific areas from oil and gas leasing.

The Post reported that in addition, Judge Gleason blocked on Friday “a land swap the Interior Department arranged that would pave the way for constructing a road through wilderness in a major National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.”  While Senator Murkowski of Alaska was critical of the rulings by Judge Gleason, Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey praised the ruling and said he “will continue to do everything in his power to stop any drilling off of New Jersey’s precious coastline.”

Why This Matters:   The Trump Administration has now, according to The Post, lost more than two dozen environmental lawsuits in which they tried to roll back Obama-era environmental policies but failed because they did not follow the law.  As The Post points out, this has significantly stymied their efforts to “pump up” the oil and gas industry and frustrated their desire to increase drilling both on the land and in the sea.  However, as these cases are appealed, the Trump Administration’s extensive judicial appointments, not to mention a majority of the Supreme Court, may make the favorable lower court decisions tough to sustain even if President Trump is not re-elected.  The only good news is that with oil prices low, The Wall Street Journal reported that there is little real interest in drilling in the Arctic anyway. Moreover, offshore oil and gas drilling is overwhelmingly unpopular.  The one ongoing oil and gas development project there, the Liberty Project (on a legacy lease in the Beaufort Sea that the Trump Administration gave the go-ahead to last year) had to be slowed recently because of the loss of sea ice due to climate change.

To Go Deeper:  You can read the Judge’s full opinion here.

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