Trump plan to sell Arctic oil leases will face hurdles

Trump plan to sell Arctic oil leases will face challenges

Biden in his campaign vowed to oppose oil and gas development in the Arctic

US President Donald Trump. Credit: AFP Photo

Even if in its waning days the Trump administration succeeds in selling oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the leases may never be issued, legal and other experts said Tuesday.

The leases would face strong and likely insurmountable headwinds from two directions: the incoming Biden administration and the courts, they said.

Under new leadership, several federal agencies could reject the leases, which even if purchased at an auction a few days before Inauguration Day would be subject to review, a process that usually takes several months.

Joe Biden vowed during the campaign to oppose oil and gas development in the refuge, a vast expanse of virtually untouched land in northeast Alaska that is home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.

“President-elect Biden has made it clear that protecting the Arctic refuge from drilling is important to him,” said Brook Brisson, a senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit public-interest law firm. “We trust that means his administration will use its executive authority to do just that.”

But if for some reason after those reviews the new administration did not reject the leases, they could also be overturned in court. There are already four lawsuits against the Trump administration’s actions relating to oil and gas development in the refuge, including one filed by Brisson’s group on behalf of Alaska Native and environmental organizations.

“Whoever wins these leases will walk into a minefield of litigation,” said Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School.

Gerrard said the Trump administration has lost several similar cases involving oil and gas leasing in Western states, due largely to its poor handling of the required legal steps. “The haste with which it’s trying to ram through these leases could lead to still more mistakes that the opponents’ lawyers will jump on,” he said.

With the publishing of a “call for nominations” in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management officially initiated the lease-sale program for the refuge. For decades it was protected by law from drilling, but it was opened to potential development in 2017 by the administration and the Republican-led Congress.