US judge denies effort to stop drilling auction in Arctic refuge

Pablo Tucker
January 9, 2021

"We will fight to protect the lands that nourish the Porcupine caribou herd and our people, no matter how long it takes or where it takes us".

Attorneys for conservation groups asked a US judge Monday to halt the issuance of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ahead of a planned sale this week. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains 78,000 square kilometers (30,100 square miles) of rolling tundra and wetlands in the Alaska North Slope region that's home to an incredible array of American biodiversity, including polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribous, wolves, eagles, lynxes, wolverines, martens, and beavers.

"Yesterday's nearly non-existent bidding for oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were not surprising". Now, with two weeks until President-elect Biden is sworn into office, leases to drill in the Coastal Plain are being offered to developers.

Environmental groups, along with representatives of the Alaska Native Gwich'in tribe that inhabits Arctic Village on the southern boundary of the refuge and relies on migrating caribou to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, insist the area should be left for roving herds of caribou, polar bears and other rare wildlife.

Due to concerns about the lack of participation in the sale, the board of directors of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority held an emergency meeting two days before Christmas in which it authorized expenses of up to to $ 20 million on ANWR leases. Kolton called the sale the "death knell for anybody who's arguing that this is going to be an oil, jobs and revenue bonanza".

Meanwhile, Audubon's lawyers with Earthjustice say that it is very hard to stop exploration and development once it's allowed to proceed.

"Plaintiffs may be correct that, over time, they may be significantly injured as a result of the planned lease sales on the Coastal Plain", Gleason said.

Gleason's order Tuesday pointed out the high legal standards necessary to win an injunction.

The groups "correctly point out that the leases would grant the right to engage in certain ground-disturbing activities, (but) they have not established a likelihood that those activities will occur before the Court issues a final ruling", dealing the larger questions in the case, she wrote. Though Biden has little power to revoke leases once they are issued, the incoming administration has wider discretion to block permits essential to mounting any activity on the tracts.

"Yesterday's nearly non-existent bidding for oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were not surprising", Danielle Fugere, president of the organization, said.

Gleason's order noted that the sale of leases is separate from a seismic permit application requested by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation.

"Today's coastal plain lease sale is a continuation of this administration's disregard for human rights, climate science, and public process", a large coalition of environmental groups and indigenous organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a joint statement [PDF].

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