Alaska court hears challenge to oil leases

Becky Bohrer
·2-min read

Attorneys for conservation groups have asked a US judge to halt oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ahead of a planned sale.

District Court Judge Sharon Gleason said she would try to issue a decision by late Tuesday, the day before the sale that would offer tracts covering much of the refuge's coastal plain.

The US Bureau of Land Management says the sale is in keeping with legislation requiring at least two lease sales to be held within 10 years, a law hailed by Alaska's political leaders, including its Republican congressional delegation.

Critics, however, say the Trump administration is trying to rush through the process in its waning days. President-elect Joe Biden opposes drilling in the region.

Gleason is weighing requests from conservation groups and tribal governments that, like the case she heard on Monday involving the National Audubon Society, seek to block leases and seismic exploration activities pending decisions on underlying lawsuits challenging the reviews they're based on.

Plaintiff attorney in Monday's case, Kate Glover, said scars on the landscape from seismic work impact on research trips and overflights among other harms that could be faced if an injunction were not granted.

Paul Turcke, for the federal government, said any potential harms to the plaintiffs were hypothetical and speculative.

Tyson Kade, attorney for intervenors including the North Slope Borough and Native Village of Kaktovik, which support the land agency's position, argued his clients could face loss of jobs and revenue if lease-related activities were halted.

In addition to the planned lease sale in the refuge's coastal plain, the Trump administration also has moved to open an extra 28,300 sq kms for oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

That plan, announced on Monday, was criticised by conservation groups as rushed and lacking protections, including for a productive wetland area.

The Bureau of Land Management countered that its plan includes safeguards for wildlife and other resources.

The administration last year announced plans to lift restrictions on logging and building roads in the country's largest national forest, the Tongass, in southeast Alaska.

State political leaders pushed for the decision and conservation groups vowed to fight it.

The US Army Corps of Engineers in November denied a proposed copper and gold mine near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in southwest Alaska, calling it "contrary to the public interest".

Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, which is working to develop the proposed Pebble Mine, last month said it would appeal the decision.

President Donald Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was among those who spoke against the project.