Federal judge rules against state agency to maintain oil and gas lease halt

ANWR(White House)
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 11:17 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A state agency that appealed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leases on Alaska’s North Slope was denied by a federal judge Monday, preventing any development from starting in the immediate future.

The ruling by United States District Judge Sharon Gleason dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and the State of Alaska in November 2021 against the Biden administration, stating that no drilling for oil or gas can be done on land that was purchased in a lease sale earlier that year.

Congress authorized an oil and gas leasing program under the Trump administration in December 2017, leading to an Environmental Impact Statement review by the Bureau of Land Management in 2019.

AIDEA was one of three bidders that purchased land in the lease sale that occurred in January 2021, buying seven tracts of Coastal Plains land within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a hotly-contested chunk of federal land in northern Alaska.

Two weeks later, President Joe Biden was sworn in and immediately directed the Department of the Interior to conduct a supplemental environmental review that ultimately put a hold on drilling in the refuge in June of that year.

“The lawsuit is in direct response to unlawful actions to obstruct and delay the development of valid oil and gas leases in the non-wilderness Coastal Plain (Section 1002 Area) of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR),” AIDEA wrote in a press release on two years ago when it announced its lawsuit.

The Alaska agency claimed federal officials overstepped in suspending lease-related activities in a section of ANWR.

The Sierra Club’s Alaska chapter called the decision “a victory for Alaska’s communities, landscapes, and wildlife.”

“AIDEA’s attempt to push forward with destructive oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without study was reckless,” Andrea Finger, director of the Sierra Club’s Alaska Chapter, said in a statement. “Today’s decision makes it clear that even AIDEA has to follow the law.”

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, wrote in a release that the lease sale in January 2021 failed to attract any major oil and gas companies, stating that it will not deliver the promised revenue while “sacrificing these sacred lands for mere pennies on the dollar.”

Demientieff also expressed what the ruling means for her culture. She said the ruling makes them feel heard.

“AIDEA has an agenda to drill on lands sacred to our people and to promote a leasing program that threatens our way of life,” Demientieff said. “Today’s ruling comes as good news as we continue defending the Porcupine caribou herd and our traditional way of life from a destructive, disrespectful, needless and illegal leasing program. We will always protect these sacred lands that connect our people culturally and spiritually. We will always protect the caribou.”

Northern Alaska Environmental Center also applauded the decision. In a statement through the Trustees for Alaska, Emily Sullivan, the NAEC Communications Director said that while the 2021 lease sale failed to draw the kind of attention from major oil companies than would be expected, AIDEA “embarrassed Alaskans with its stubborn pursuit of leases.”

“AIDEA should focus on its mission to diversify Alaska’s economy instead of wasting state funds, attempting to defend unlawful leases through unreasonable legal actions,” Sullivan said. “It’s beyond time for AIDEA to move past its obsession with extractive industry and work towards a sustainable economy that serves all Alaskans, present and future.”

In contrast, Alaska’s congressional delegation criticized the ruling.

“I firmly support Alaska’s ability to explore and develop its natural resources in order to create jobs and lower energy prices,” Rep. Mary Peltola said. “We can’t afford to keep letting each new administration change the rules of the game when it comes to Alaskans energy.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also disagreed with the ruling.

“This multi-year suspension doesn’t protect the environment; it harms Alaska’s economy, jeopardizes our energy security, and empowers the likes of Russia and Iran in a world that is using more oil than ever,” Murkowski said.

The land that AIDEA wants to develop contains an estimated 7.6 million barrels of recoverable oil, according to the agency, and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. AIDEA also said development of the area — which spans more than 571 square miles — would directly provide 1,430 jobs with an additional 6,350 jobs indirectly created.

The agency stated in a release that it is “disappointed” in the decision.

“Congress clearly said the Department of the Interior had to go forward with leasing in ANWR and expected DOI to allow those leases to produce jobs, oil, and revenue for the Treasury. Congress certainly expects the leasing entities to carry out its intent without having to expressly authorize every step in the leasing process,” Director of Communications and External Affairs Josie Wilson wrote. “The Department of Interior failed to specify what specific items were deficient in the determination.

“This lack of clarity will likely lead to an open ended and costly delay. This is another example of why comprehensive permit reform is needed. Agency decisions must be final at some point and not subject to politics and the whims of changing administrations.”

The Bureau of Land Management has said it plans to move forward with a new environmental review of leasing in the refuge.