The public comment period on the Trump administration’s proposed five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan wrapped up a few weeks ago, but the administration is already moving forward with plans to open up parts of the Arctic Ocean to fossil fuel extraction.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) officially began soliciting comments from the oil and gas industry for areas of the Beaufort Sea that might be open to lease late next year, following the release of the administration’s finalized offshore plan.
But environmental and conservation groups warn that the call for potential lease areas is premature, since the administration hasn’t even released its final five-year proposal.
Soliciting industry advice on what areas are of interest, they contend, proves that the administration has a pre-determined outcome for the Arctic Ocean, something that could open up the administration to legal challenges should they offer these areas for lease sale down the road.
“In many ways, we believe this is putting the cart before the horse,” Devorah Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.
“We could make the argument that this is predetermined, given that there is pending litigation,” Ancel adding, referring to a lawsuit filed by environmental and public interest groups challenging Trump’s authority to overturn protections granted by President Obama during his final month in office.
Under the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, presidents can choose to remove certain areas of the outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing. This is an area that stretches from roughly three miles from shore to the 200 mile international water boundary.
In December 2016, Obama announced that under that authority, 98 percent of U.S.-controlled Arctic waters would be permanently withheld from future oil and gas lease plans. At the time, environmental groups applauded the move, arguing that it would be difficult to legally revoke, due to lack of precedent — because while presidents had rarely used it to block drilling, a court had never decided whether a different president could undo those protections.
But Trump wasted no time overturning the measure when he took office, releasing an order in April 2017 that reopened all of the Arctic waters that Obama had attempted to protect.
“It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban,” Trump said of his order at the time of signing. “So hear that: It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban, and directs Secretary Zinke to allow responsible development of offshore areas that will bring revenue to our Treasury and jobs to our workers.”
That move has already been challenged in court, with a coalition of environmental, conservation, and indigenous groups filing a lawsuit against the administration arguing that Trump doesn’t have legal authority to overturn the protections put in place by Obama.
Last week, a judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled that the lawsuit could move forward, finding both that the groups bringing the lawsuit had adequate standing and that the executive order signed by Trump would likely present imminent threats to the Arctic region.
“The Executive Order mandates expedited consideration of seismic survey permits, instructs revision of the schedule of oil and gas lease sales to include annual lease sales in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, and directs review of offshore safety and pollution-control regulations and guidance documents,” Judge Sharon Gleason, an Obama appointee, wrote in her decision. “The Executive Order itself demonstrates that oil and gas exploration activities are intended to be imminent.”
But questions remain as to whether or not Trump has the legal authority to rescind the protections created by Obama — questions that environmental and conservation groups argue should be answered before the administration solicits recommendations on places for oil and gas leases in the Beaufort Sea.
“You have this kind of a rush to judgement that the Beaufort Sea is going to be of great and wide interest and should be advanced as quickly as possible,” Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, told ThinkProgress. “It seems there is a predetermined outcome that the Beaufort Sea is going to be leased by this administration.”
Whether or not portions of the Beaufort Sea eventually end up being leased by the administration will hinge on several factors: the outcome of the pending litigation, a final five-year proposed leasing plan, and — ultimately — industry interest in the area. There has been some suggestion by energy experts that Arctic drilling might see little commercial interest in the near-term, as low oil prices make the expense and danger of drilling in a remote and unpredictable area like the Beaufort Sea.
But Epstein cautions that there is a fair amount of interest in areas of the Beaufort Sea near the shoreline, which were not included in Obama’s protection order. Already, the Trump administration has given the green-light to Eni, an Italian oil and gas company, to drill four exploratory wells three miles off the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort.
Environmental and conservation groups worry that drilling in the Beaufort could pose significant risks to wildlife in the area, disrupting bowhead whale migration patterns, for instance, that indigenous communities rely on for subsistence. BOEM officials have suggested that areas of particular importance to migratory whale populations might not be included in a final lease plan, though that remains to be seen.
“The speed at which they are moving and actually soliciting comments on it is quite troubling,” the Sierra Club’s Ancel said. “It’s unsettling that they are pursuing these areas that are so sensitive in a climate change perspective and in a wildlife perspective.”