Alaska files motion to join Trump in lawsuit over Arctic drilling

By Alex DeMarban, Alaska Dispatch News - September 5, 2017

The state of Alaska on Thursday filed a motion in federal court to intervene alongside President Donald Trump in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups seeking to prevent drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.  

“In filing this motion, our objective is to make sure that the state of Alaska has future development opportunities in the Arctic (federal waters),” Gov. Bill Walker said in a prepared statement Thursday.

The Kulluk conical drilling unit works in the Beaufort Sea at a Shell Alaska prospect recently offshore from the North Slope. The rig was made specifically to drill in Arctic conditions and is owned outright by Shell. Following several weeks of drilling at Shell Alaska OCS prospects, Shell has concluded its 2012 exploratory drilling programs in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. "The work we accomplished in drilling the top portion of the Burger-A well in the Chukchi Sea and the Sivulliq well in the Beaufort Sea will go a long way in positioning Shell for a successful drilling program in 2013," said spokesman Curtis Smith. "Shell deployed numerous assets and rotated thousands of employees to the Arctic for the first time in 20 years. We are very pleased with the work we accomplished this year and look forward to picking up where we left off when the sea ice retreats in 2013." (Shell Alaska)
The Kulluk conical drilling unit works in the Beaufort Sea at a Shell Alaska prospect in 2012. (Shell Alaska)

Trump signed an order in April designed to reopen federal waters of the Chukchi Sea and major portions of the Beaufort Sea for potential lease sales to exploration companies.

Trump modified a December executive order from his predecessor, Barack Obama, that prohibited new leases in the vast majority of U.S. Arctic offshore waters.

Several conservation groups brought the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alaska in May, arguing that Trump’s order was unlawful and that agencies could not adopt it. The suit named as defendants Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

[Groups sue over Trump executive order]

The conservation groups included Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The groups said the waters support Alaska Native subsistence activities and species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, such as polar bears.

Federal agencies have indicated that as much as 40 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable conventional oil, and more than 200 trillion cubic feet of conventional natural gas, exist in the region, according to the state.

The state argues that development in federal waters – starting 3 miles offshore – will support the Alaska economy by encouraging development in state-leased waters along the coast and by contributing more oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline.

If allowed to intervene, the state will join the federal government in its effort to have the case dismissed. The American Petroleum Institute has already intervened on the federal government’s side.

The state plans to auction off leases to explorers in state waters of the Beaufort Sea this winter, the motion says.

“The uncertainty of the availability of adjacent federal lands may impact the success of that sale,” the state’s motion says.