Trump hit with first lawsuit over Arctic drilling order

Environmental groups filed in federal court Wednesday, challenging rollbacks on environmental protections.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Another executive order issued by President Donald Trump has run afoul of the law, according to lawyers for environmental groups, who filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” released last week.

In the executive order, Trump called for areas of federally controlled waters that were protected under President Obama — including 98 percent of the Arctic Ocean— to be reopened for oil drilling and exploration leases.

“This executive order starts the process of opening offshore areas to job-creating energy exploration,” Trump said on Friday. “It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban. So hear that: It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban, and directs [Interior] Secretary Zinke to allow responsible development of offshore areas that will bring revenue to our Treasury and jobs to our workers.”

But the original withdrawals were made by presidential authority under Section 12(a) of the Offshore Continental Shelf Lands Act, and a massive coalition of environmental lawyers argue that Trump doesn’t have the authority to remove the protections. The complaint, brought by lawyers at Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, “arises from President Trump’s unlawful attempt to undo permanent protections for the vast majority of the U.S. Arctic Ocean and dozens of underwater canyons in the Atlantic Ocean.”


In a statement, the groups, which include several high-profile environmental organizations and local Alaskan and indigenous groups, said that Trump’s order “exceeds his constitutional and statutory authority and violates federal law.”

“Until Trump, no president has ever tried to reverse a permanent withdrawal made under OCSLA, which does not authorize such a reversal,” the groups said. Wednesday’s suit was filed in a federal district court in Alaska, since the vast majority of the acreage affects Arctic waters.

The reversal sparked League of Conservation Voters to join the lawsuit as well. In the group’s nearly 50 years, this is the first legal challenge over an environmental law LCV has ever filed.

“By challenging Trump in court in this unprecedented way, we are signaling to Congress, the president and the people of this country our resolute and growing commitment to defending the Arctic and Atlantic permanent protections and halting the expansion of risky offshore drilling,” LCV president Gene Karpinski said in a statement.

In December 2016, Obama declared that 98 percent of U.S.-controlled Arctic waters would be off-limits for drilling. The announcement was made in conjunction with Canadian pledges to stop drilling in the Arctic and a bilateral agreement to reduce heavy fuel oil use. At the time, Obama said “it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”

In contrast, the new administration — particularly Zinke — seems to view its role as one of shepherding new fossil fuel infrastructure into place. At an offshore drilling conference in Houston earlier this week, Zinke emphasized that the United States needs to achieve “dominance” in the global energy market. “Dominance is what America needs,” Zinke said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “If you’re in the oil and gas and energy segment in this society, the stars have lined up.”


In addition to opening up the Arctic, Trump’s executive order directed the Department of the Interior to review the current regulations for seismic testing and to review the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan for offshore drilling, which determines where leasing will be available to oil and gas companies. The agency will look at options for the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Commerce was directed to review all designations made under the Antiquities Act in the last 10 years and to “refrain” from making any new designations.

The order prompted an immediate backlash from coastal communities and lawmakers, including a slew of Republicans along the Eastern Seaboard. In a way, the outrage was just waiting in the wings for a moment like this. Under Obama, BOEM had included the possibility of drilling off the East Coast in the draft five-year plan. The inclusion spurred an swell of opposition, with coastal communities up and down the coast passing resolutions in opposition to both seismic testing and drilling.