Environmental Groups File Lawsuit to Protect Alaska’s Arctic

Trump executive order to open up Alaska's Arctic

President Donald Trump signs an order along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, on, April 28, 2017. The Executive Order gives the Interior Department directions to review restrictive drilling policies for the outer-continental shelf. Associated Press photo.

Alaska continues to fight to preserve the wild spaces that give the state its incredible natural character. A number of Alaska environmental and Native groups filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order attempting to reverse regulations that restrict and ban oil and gas drilling, inland and offshore of Alaska’s Arctic.

Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, The League of Conservation Voters and other green agencies jointly filed the complaint in Alaska’s federal district court last week after Trump’s April 28th order, signed amid members of Alaska’s congressional delegation. The crux of the filing was that President Trump’s order exceeded authority under federal law.

Prior to the new administration taking office, then-President Barack Obama signed into law the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act designating areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans off limits to oil and gas drilling.

The contending environmental groups argue that Trump’s action is illegal since Obama’s enacted law doesn’t have a provision explicitly allowing the order to be reversed.

Trump’s “executive order attempting to undo President Obama’s historic protection of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from drilling is part of a plan to sell off our oceans to polluting corporations at the cost of the safety of coastal communities, the fate of marine wildlife and our children’s future,” said Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen.

“These areas have been permanently protected from the dangers of oil and gas development. President Trump may wish to undo that, and declare our coasts open for business to dirty energy companies, but he simply lacks the authority to do so under the law,” said Niel Lawrence, NRDC senior attorney.

Trump’s “executive order attempting to undo President Obama’s historic protection of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from drilling is part of a plan to sell off our oceans to polluting corporations at the cost of the safety of coastal communities, the fate of marine wildlife and our children’s future,” said Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen.

Many other entities are involved in the lawsuit including Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society along with a handful of smaller local groups.

In a statement released by The Arctic Energy Center, an oil industry affiliate, rationale behind the lawsuit was challenged.

“There’s no precedent to show a ban should be permanent, there is nothing to suggest a subsequent White House cannot overturn the decision, and that the last administration’s application of the rule conflicts with the act’s wider specification to ensure (the Outer Continental Shelf) is ‘available for expeditious and orderly development,’ ” stated spokesman Oliver Williams.

Supreme Court Denies Groups Opposing Polar Bear Habitat in Alaska

Polar bears in Wapusk National Park

Polar bear habitat protection is becoming a hot issue. Daisy Gilardini photo.

The U.S. Supreme Court stood up against a coalition of organizations within Alaska by declining  to hear a case on Monday which attempts to repeal the previous federal government administration’s policy to designate more than 187,000 square miles of Alaskan wilderness as critical habitat for threatened polar bears.

Lawsuits filed against the Interior Department by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska along with Native corporations and local governments were able to reverse the regulation in 2013 though the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.The state of Alaska and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association — joined by Native corporations and local governments — brought lawsuits against the Interior Department to overturn that decision.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing the case and therefore the ruling reverted back to the original law which was instituted by the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The area in Alaska’s Arctic was protected by the federal government in December 2010.

polar bear habitat in Alaska

Alska polar bear habitat. State of Alaska photo.

Opposition groups filing appeals against the original designation claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service overstepped its authority and created major economical consequences with relatively no conservation benefit whatsoever. The argument presented to the Supreme court attempted to overturn the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which left Fish and Wildlife open to make “sweeping designations (in this case an area the size of California) that overlap with existing human development (including, even, industrial areas).” further arguing that the designated polar bear habitat interfered with oil industry operations as well as tribal sovereignty.

Mother polar bears avoid having their cubs swim in the ocean until they have the fat reserves to protect them. Jonathan Hayward photo.

“Swept within that enormous block of land are the entire ancestral homelands for certain Native communities, as well as the largest and most productive oil field in North America,” the petition to the oil and gas group gave the Supreme Court. Nearly 96 percent of the protected habitat area is sea ice, the smaller, remaining area includes “industrial facilities, garbage dumps, airports, communities, and homes (from which bears are actively chased away) as ‘critical’ habitat that is purportedly free from ‘human disturbance’ or otherwise ‘unobstructed,’ ” the petition said.

The coalition of various groups argued further that the 9th Circuit Court’s broad ruling would allow for expansion of habitat designations in other regions of the United States.

The government stated that it utilized two rounds of public comment and current, leading scientific data in defense of why the protected habitat was designated by courts initially.

“The Service did not designate any areas outside the geographical area currently occupied by polar bears because it determined that ‘occupied areas are sufficient for the conservation of polar bears in the United States,’ ” the federal government reported to the Supreme Court.

Churchill Video of the Week – Aurora Hunter

Todd Salat is a self-described aurora borealis hunter from Alaska. A former geologist, Salat has traveled all over the world tracking the aurora borealis and then capturing them in photographs for the rest of the world to see. He describes his life work schedule as a nine to fiver…however it’s nine pm to five am when the lights are at their peak. This short video gives us a look into his life as a real life northern lights tracker. Enjoy!

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President Obama Protects Arctic Waters

Outgoing President Barack Obama executed a critical order on Tuesday by banning any new gas and oil drilling in federal waters in Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. The move comes as an environmental safeguard prior to the new Republican administration taking office January 20th lead by President elect Donald Trump.

Utilizing a 1950s-era law termed the Outer Continental Shelf Act, Obama used the power of President to limit areas from mineral leasing and drilling. Trump’s incoming administration will only be able to challenge and change the edict by fighting it in court according to several environmental groups agreeing with the order.

Arctic waters

Map of the Arctic waters to the north of Alaska just protected by President Obama. BOEM image.

The Alaskan waters ban affects 115 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea as well as 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic Ocean. A main concern of environmental advocates regarding fuel exploration in the region is the devastating affects an oil spill or gas leakage in the oceans would have on the ecosystems. Such a remote and harsh climate would severely limit the capabilities of clean-up crews and emergency response teams. Wildlife such as polar bears, whales, seals and fish would be harmed and populations of the animals could be irreversibly destroyed.

Trump has continually stated that he will seek to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the waters north of Alaska. Recent releases from his energy transition team  predicted increases in production in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These forecasts have been dealt a serious blow and are likely “dead in the water” at this time. Trump spokespeople would not comment on the actions.

Very limited oil and gas exploration has been happening in recent years as less expensive shale oil production primarily out of Texas and North Dakota has been the priority. Drilling off Arctic shores in Alaska is more expensive and risky in nature. Most notably, Shell Oil pulled out of the waters just last year following a shipping accident and limitation laws discovered by environmental groups limiting exploration.

Proponents for drilling such as the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, stated that Trump would be able to use a presidential memorandum to lift the ban rendering the move by Obama obsolete. “We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy,” said Erik Milito, API’s upstream director.

Arctic Ocean Alaska

A view over the now protected Arctic waters from Barrow, Alaska. NASA photo.

Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are in agreement with protecting Arctic waters. The two leaders are initiating joint actions and these actions “reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.” stated Obama.

In similar action Trudeau and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters off limits indefinitely to any future offshore Arctic gas and oil licensing. These sanctions will be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment. Obama’s action, unlike the five year review applied to the Canadian law, contains no designated analysis period outlined for the U.S. law.

Under current law, authorization is not granted for reversing a previous presidential order of this kind so efforts by Trump to challenge this move will most likely need to be taken up in court via a lawsuit.

“No president has ever tried to undo a permanent withdrawal of an ocean area from leasing eligibility,” said Neil Lawrence, Alaska director and attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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