Indigenous Alaskans seek to block Arctic oil lease auction

Jennifer A. Dlouhy December 16, 2020

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) --Native Alaskans and environmental groups are asking a federal court to block the Trump administration from selling oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next month.

The groups on Tuesday filed requests with an Anchorage judge for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Interior Department’s planned Jan. 6 auction of oil and gas leases across the refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain.

The intervention could be critical to ensuring President-elect Joe Biden is able to fulfill his campaign promise to protect the refuge. Once the Trump administration conducts the auction, any formally issued leases become legal contracts with the federal government that would be difficult for the Biden administration to revoke.

Congress mandated the government hold at least two Arctic refuge oil lease sales by Dec. 22, 2024, in a bid to raise money offsetting the cost of the 2017 tax cuts.

But environmentalists and indigenous Alaskans, including Gwich’in people who consider the area sacred, say the Trump administration is rushing oil leasing at the risk of spoiling a wilderness home to calving caribou, migratory birds and other species.

“It is hardly surprising that these special interest groups and frequent filers are trying to stop a congressionally mandated energy development program,” said Interior Department spokesman Ben Goldey. “Our decision regarding where and when leasing can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears.”

Environmentalists were already challenging the Interior Department’s August decision to formally authorize an oil auction. But they’ve also taken issue with how Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has advanced sale plans -- including scheduling it before the close of a 30-day window for oil companies and the public to weigh in on what tracts should be made available.

Niel Lawrence, Alaska director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there was no justification for the Trump administration to hold an auction on its way out the door.

“There is no explanation for this rush to give away the heart of our largest and most iconic wildlife refuge, except that this crew wants to ruin it forever, while they still can,” Lawrence said.

Companies and investors that want to participate have until Dec. 31 to submit sealed bids of at least $25 per acre.

The cases are National Audubon Society v. Bernhardt, 3:20-cv-00205, and Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Bernhardt, 3:20-cv-00204, U.S. District Court, District of Alaska (Anchorage).

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