Trump administration appeals ruling that blocked Arctic offshore drilling

The Beaufort Sea, one of the areas the Trump administration is attempting to re-open for offshore Arctic oil development. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The Trump administration Tuesday appealed a federal court decision that blocked plans to re-open vast portions of Alaska’s Arctic waters to oil drilling.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the president exceeded his authority when he issued an executive order undoing an Obama-era ban on oil leasing in large parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

An U.S. Interior Department spokesperson, Molly Block, declined to comment. The case will now go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Interior Department had pushed to hold an oil lease sale in the Beaufort Sea as soon as this year.

But a coalition of environmental groups sued. They argued the 1953 law that gives presidents the power to permanently bar offshore oil development in some areas does not allow a subsequent president to reverse such a decision.

The March ruling has led to significant uncertainty about how the Interior Department will proceed as it prepares a new, five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan for the U.S. At stake is about 128 million acres of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, an area twice the size of Colorado.

In a statement Tuesday, League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said conservation groups, “look forward to defending the district court’s decision at the Ninth Circuit.”

“Offshore drilling and the associated threat of devastating oil spills puts coastal economies and ways of life at risk,” Karpinski said. 

Alaska’s political leaders and the oil industry argue that Arctic offshore drilling can be done safely, saying that Gleason’s decision prevents development of what could be billions of barrels of oil in the outer continental shelf.

“One president should not have the power to lock up Alaska’s resources in perpetuity,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement shortly after the March decision.

The Trump administration on Friday also appealed a separate ruling that halted its effort to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, on the Alaska Peninsula.

Both decisions were made by Gleason.

Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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