Beaufort Sea oil leasing plan moves ahead, despite legal challenge

The Trump administration announced last week that it would proceed with a planned Beaufort Sea lease sale, despite an ongoing lawsuit over such development.

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A drilling unit works at a Shell prospect in the Beaufort Sea in 2012. Offshore oil and gas leases are again being offered in the Beaufort Sea, but those leases are the subject of a lawsuit. (Shell Alaska file photo)

The Trump administration is preparing to auction off drilling rights next year in the icy Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast, even though its entire Arctic offshore oil leasing program is being challenged in federal court.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced on Thursday that it is launching an environmental review of a Beaufort lease sale proposed for 2019. That is one of three Beaufort Sea lease sales that the Trump administration plans to hold over the next five years.

The BOEM announcement solicited input to be used in an environmental impact statement. The notice was published Friday in the Federal Register, kicking off a 30-day public comment period on the scope of the EIS.

“We look forward to receiving thoughtful, substantive input on this EIS,” James J. Kendall, director of BOEM’s Alaska Region, said in a statement. “We especially need to hear from residents of the Beaufort Sea communities, letting us know how the proposed leasing area is currently being used and what specific areas need extra attention. To address these issues, we will use rigorous science together with traditional knowledge and other input we receive from this early step in the leasing process.”

The launch of the EIS process follows a formal solicitation by BOEM in May that asked industry and other interested partners about areas that should be included in a 2019 Beaufort sale.

If the sale is held, parameters will depend on the outcome of a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Alaska.

That action seeks to invalidate elements of a sweeping 2017 executive order by President Trump that put protected areas of the Beaufort, along with the entire Chukchi Sea and portions of the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, back into contention for oil development.

Trump’s order struck down the protections placed in 2016 by President Obama that permanently withdrew those areas from BOEM’s oil and gas leasing program.

Environmentalists challenging Trump’s offshore action argue that the president, under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and other federal laws, has no right to use executive actions to undo protections. Only Congress has the right to open up protected areas to development, the lawsuit argues.

In a Nov. 9 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, attorneys for the environmental groups said presidential decisions can be only for withdrawals, not against them.

“What the statute allows the president to do is identify areas that he thinks should be held back unless Congress acts,” Erik Grafe of Earthjustice told Gleason in the hearing.

Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Wood, arguing in defense of Trump’s executive order, said that while Obama had the right to withdraw territory from leasing, nothing in OCSLA, as crafted by Congress, limits the next president’s “power to make decisions as the chief executive of this nation” to reverse those withdrawals.

“There’s no requirement at all that it be a permanent withdrawal,” Wood told Gleason. “Congress does not hide elephants in mouseholes.”

After the hearing, Grafe told reporters that he expects a ruling several months from now.

Beaufort Sea leasing has been endorsed by industry groups and opposed by environmentalists.

Further oil development in the Beaufort “is consistent with advancing the goal of moving America from simply aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” the Resource Development Council for Alaska said in May comments to BOEM.

“The Beaufort Sea is a highly prospective basin. Its untapped resources are of significant importance to both Alaska and the United States and have the potential to serve as a key component of our nation’s energy portfolio in the coming decades,” the RDC comment letter said.

Environmental groups said Thursday that the launch of the Beaufort sale EIS process showed that the Trump administration is rushing to resume offshore Arctic leasing.

“Despite the risks of offshore drilling it appears as though President Trump is charging ahead and that the decision to offer leases for 65 million acres of the Beaufort Sea has already been made, with no regard for the dangers or the established public process,”  Diane Hoskins, campaign director for Oceana, said in a statement.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.