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Alaska News

Judge hears arguments in case to prevent drilling in ANWR

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

A judge on Monday heard oral arguments in a case that could halt the Trump administration from issuing leases in the first-ever oil and gas lease sale for land in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At stake in the case, brought by conservation groups before U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, is the decades-long effort to allow oil production the refuge, which will reach a critical point in the lease sale Wednesday.

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management, said the agency has “received interest” in the lease sale.

Ellis-Wouters declined to specify if that interest comes from private industry or a state-owned development agency.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority was poised to take the unusual step of putting minimum bids on the tracts up for lease in the 19-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain. Those potential bids were designed as a backstop in the event no companies bid, in what’s considered a difficult time for Arctic oil investments with major banks saying they won’t support such projects.

Alan Weitzner, executive director of AIDEA, would not say on Monday whether the agency had submitted bids by the New Year’s Eve deadline.

Many Alaska residents and political leaders consider development in the refuge critical to Alaska’s economic future. But others, along with environmental and some tribal groups, consider it a dangerous risk for polar bears, caribou, subsistence hunters and climate change.

If a lease sale is held, the leases would not be issued to oil and gas companies that submit the highest bids for several days. They may not be issued at all, depending on how Gleason rules. And president-elect Joe Biden has said he’s opposed to drilling in the refuge, though experts have said he’ll have more difficulty stopping development once the leases are issued.

The case Gleason heard Monday, brought by the National Audubon Society and three other conservation groups against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and two federal agencies, seeks a swift decision to stop the leases from being given out. It also seeks to halt a seismic exploration program that would send large trucks crawling across the frozen tundra of the coastal plain this winter, searching for the best drilling opportunities there.

On Monday, lawyers representing the Trump administration argued that Gleason should not stop the leases from being issued, since the act itself would not cause activity that would irreparably harm the environment. They argued that Congress in 2017 mandated the lease sale, and that the federal government has met legal requirements to hold it.

Lawyers for intervening defendants the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Native village corporation for Kaktovik, the only village in the refuge, presented arguments siding with the federal government.

Lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice asserted that issuing the leases to oil and gas companies would set the stage for harmful activity and make it that much harder for the federal government to undo a decision based on what they argued were faulty environmental reviews.

The groups are seeking a swift order halting the leases from being given out as the broader case proceeds.

As with other court cases during the pandemic, the hearing was held virtually, and was occasionally hit with technical glitches including one that temporarily left Gleason disconnected.

“I think that will be the line of the pandemic — ‘I’m sorry, you are on mute,’” Gleason said to one attorney.

Gleason said she’d try to issue a decision by “close of business” on Tuesday, on the eve of the live-streamed lease sale, set for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Gleason’s decision this week will not end the case. The conservation groups want the entire oil and gas program halted, a broader question she will address later.

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