President Donald Trump’s attempt to restore oil and gas leasing in U.S. waters was blocked by a federal judge in Alaska in a victory for environmentalists who argued that offshore drilling isn’t worth the risk.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that Trump didn’t have authority to resume selling drilling rights in more than 125 million acres of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans that President Barack Obama had sought to protect.
The ruling is a defeat for the president as well as for oil companies eager to keep new territory open for exploration. It complicates the Trump administration’s plan to auction drilling rights in Arctic waters that are believed to hold more than 30 billion barrels of oil equivalent. It also reimposes three executive orders from Obama that had removed vast stretches of the Arctic and Atlantic from future oil and gas leasing.
The judge sided with environmentalists’ central argument that Trump lacks the authority to strip protections for most U.S. Arctic waters as well as some 4 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean, after Obama permanently withdrew the territory from oil and gas development.
Congress offers presidents the power to withdraw lands from exploration, but Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act doesn’t offer them the authority to reverse such withdrawals, they argued.
The Trump administration had contended that Congress gave presidents wider power to determine which U.S. coastal waters are available for oil, natural gas and mineral development, and the Justice Department asserted that courts can’t override the president’s authority under the Outer Continental Shelf law to modify prior policy actions.
Environmentalists said the judge’s decision could thwart plans to sell new drilling rights as soon as 2020 in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.
“This decision shows that no one, not even Trump, is above the law,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, the lead plaintiff in the case.
The American Petroleum Institute, which had intervened to help defend Trump’s order, said the ruling shouldn’t stop administration efforts to sell new offshore tracts for oil development.
“Our nation still has a significant opportunity before us in the development of the next offshore leasing plan to truly embrace our nation’s energy potential and ensure American consumers and businesses continue to benefit from U.S. energy leadership,” the API said in an emailed statement.
The case was the first major test of how much power presidents have to dictate when and where offshore drilling should take place under the 66-year-old Outer Continental Shelf law, which says presidents may withdraw unleased territory from leasing “from time to time.”
The LCV, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups said that a victory for Trump would have undercut a vital tool for protecting oceans and coasts. The obscure Section 12(a) provision at issue had been used to preserve coral reefs and walrus grounds even before Obama used its power to block a new generation of oil drilling in fragile, remote Arctic waters.
But oil industry advocates said that presidents have an obligation to allow energy production in U.S. waters, given that Congress specifically directed the Outer Continental Shelf be available “for expeditious and orderly development.”
“Withdrawals are not a one-way, permanent street, but have often been either issued on a temporary or time-limited basis, or subsequently revised,” the API said in a filing.
Although Congress hasn’t challenged Trump’s reversal, that appeared to carry little weight with Gleason, who noted that lawmakers haven’t fought previous revocations either.
“Congress’s decisions not to challenge the small number of prior revocations falls far short of the high bar required to constitute acquiescence,” she wrote. “Too little information about Congress’s limited inaction exists to override the court’s interpretation of Section 12(a) based on that section’s language and legislative history prior to its enactment.”
Representatives of the Justice Department didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
The administration could appeal the ruling. Congress also could take action to codify Trump’s reversal or to limit president’s authority to withdraw territory from potential oil leasing. Those efforts are unlikely to advance in the House, where Democrats in the majority are already pushing measures to restrict new drilling, not expand it.