Judge rejects Trump’s effort to override Obama and open up offshore leasing in Arctic

A federal judge on Friday rejected President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn a decision by his predecessor and open large tracts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil leasing.

The ruling drew support from conservation groups and a strong objection early Sunday from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sharon Gleason, a U.S. District Court judge in Alaska, ruled that Trump in 2017 “exceeded his authority” when he issued an executive order moving to revoke withdrawals of lands for leasing made by Barack Obama in 2015 and 2016.

Trump’s order was “unlawful,” Gleason wrote.

[Read the full ruling]

Murkowski said in an email that she “strongly disagrees” with the ruling. It asserts that past presidents “can bind their successors" with decisions only Congress can undo.

“That is not the correct interpretation of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and could have catastrophic impacts for offshore development, which creates jobs, generates revenues, and strengthens our national security," said Murkowski, or the ruling. "I expect this decision to be appealed and ultimately overturned — if not by the Ninth Circuit, then by the Supreme Court.”


Obama had banned drilling in most Arctic waters with his decision in 2016 near the end of his term closing 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and its estimated 27 billion barrels of oil. That drew howls of protest from members of Alaska’s Congressional decision.

“The wording of President Obama’s 2015 and 2016 withdrawals indicates that he intended them to extend indefinitely, and therefore be revocable only by an act of Congress,” Gleason wrote.

The decision is a win for the 10 conservation groups who sued the president, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to stop Trump’s rollback.

The groups included the Alaska Wilderness League, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The state of Alaska and the American Petroleum Institute had joined the federal government as intervenor-defendants.

Gleason wrote that the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act grants presidents the authority to withdraw unleased lands from the outer-continental shelf. But it does not grant the president the authority to revoke prior withdrawals, she ruled.

Congress has the authority to take that step.

“As a result, the previous three withdrawals issued on January 27, 2015, and December 20, 2016 will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress,” she wrote in a 32-page order.

An earlier ruling in the day by Gleason, an Obama appointee, halted another effort by the Trump administration to undo a decision by the previous administration. In a 31-page ruling, Gleason rejected a land swap deal signed by Zinke and an Alaska Native corporation that set the stage for building a road between Alaska Peninsula communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

That deal counteracted a 2013 decision by Obama’s Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell. She had rejected a land-swap deal passed by Congress for the road, after the federal government had determined it would damage critical waterfowl habitat in the Izembek Refuge.

Conservation groups lauded the decisions on Saturday.

“In less than 24 hours, a federal court has put a halt to Trump’s assault on wild Alaska," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Yesterday’s court decisions are victories for land and sea alike, and a reminder that the Trump administration is not above the law.

Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the offshore ruling a victory for Arctic wildlife and East Coast communities.

“Trump can’t ignore the law in his reckless rush to open our oceans to dangerous drilling," Monsell said. ”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or