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As Arctic Refuge oil lease sale looms, a court will consider a request to halt the Trump administration from issuing leases

The decades-long effort to allow oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will play out in a federal courthouse on Monday, where conservation and tribal groups are hoping to stop the Trump administration from issuing leases to oil and gas companies.

The oral arguments could set the stage for an eventful week.

The Bureau of Land Management plans to open bids in a livestreamed lease sale for land in the refuge on Wednesday, in what conservation groups have described as a last-minute push by the Trump administration to help secure drilling rights for oil companies there before the president leaves office.

The agency is offering 10-year leases on 22 tracts covering about 1 million acres in the refuge’s coastal plain, about 5% of the refuge.

In a highly unusual step, a state of Alaska-owned corporation could be among the bidders in an effort to acquire and hold leases for possible future development by oil companies, during what’s considered a challenging time for investment in Arctic oil projects. Many major banks have vowed to not finance such projects.

Whether the leases are issued may rest on a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage, who will hear the oral arguments by videoconference Monday afternoon, in a case brought by the National Audubon Society and three other conservation groups. Attorneys with Earthjustice will present the arguments for the group.

Federal attorneys on the other side will defend Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and intervenor defendants that include the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain

The Audubon Society’s case is one of four lawsuits brought by conservation groups, Alaska tribal entities and 15 state governments. They seek to halt drilling in the refuge, after the Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved the lease sale. Monday’s arguments only deal with the potential issuance of the leases, and won’t resolve the cases.

“Next week is a pivotal time in history to determine whether or not we’ll do the right thing,” said Karlin Itchoak, state director for The Wilderness Society in Alaska, a plaintiff in one of the cases, on Thursday.

Itchoak said his group hopes to put the question of oil leasing in the refuge into the hands of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he opposes drilling in the refuge.

“(Under Biden), we’ll do everything we can to do push for durable, long-term protection of the coastal plain and the refuge, especially with the climate crisis we are in,” Itchoak said.

Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an intervenor in the case in the side of the federal government, said she could not discuss the hearing Monday because it’s an ongoing legal issue.

With fellow intervenor the American Petroleum Institute, the group argues that the issuance of a lease won’t cause irreparable injury.

If “BLM issues one or more leases, leaseholders will not be able to conduct any on-the-ground exploration or development activities on those leases until they receive additional approvals from BLM (approvals they have yet to even apply for), including additional review under the National Environmental Policy Act,” the groups say in their brief.

BLM said in a press statement that it’s required by law to create an oil and gas program for the coastal plain and hold at least two sales there.

“Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on an extensive process involving input from BLM career subject-matter experts and the public,” the agency said in the statement, provided Thursday by BLM spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters. “The BLM continues to balance safe and responsible natural resource development with conservation of important surface resources.”

Ellis-Wouters said the agency plans to open bids on Wednesday, but the leases won’t be issued that day, she said. The agency must take other steps before it can actually provide the leases to the bid winners, such as confirming that bonding requirements are met, she said.

Alaska’s political leadership has sought to allow drilling in the refuge for decades, hoping it would lead to another big oil discovery like Prudhoe Bay west of the refuge, buttressing Alaska’s future economy.

Conservation groups have decried the efforts, saying drilling will put threatened polar bears, the Porcupine caribou herd and other animals at risk, while exacerbating climate change if oil ever flows from the land.

The Audubon Society has requested that Gleason issue a decision by the time of the lease sale or shortly after it, said Eric Jorgenson, an attorney for Earthjustice. The group also hopes Gleason will halt a seismic exploration plan proposed by an Alaska Native corporation this winter, according to its 26-page brief.

Gleason has said she’ll try to issue a decision before the lease sale on Wednesday.

The Audubon Society argues that federal agencies have violated the law to allow the lease sale.

Among other things, the group asserts that the federal government failed to properly consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions potentially associated with the oil and gas program.

It also argues that Bernhardt should have issued a written determination that the oil and gas program for the refuge is compatible with the purpose of the refuge, including conserving fish and wildlife populations in their natural diversity.

The 2017 law added an oil and gas program as a refuge purpose. The written determination was still required, the group argues.

The federal government argues that it conducted a proper analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, according to its 67-page reply. It says it was required by Congress to create and administer the oil and gas program for the coastal plain. Determining the compatibility of the program would have served no legal or practical purpose, the government argues.

The hearing will take place by videoconference at 1 p.m. in Virtual Courtroom 3, with both sides allowed 20 minutes. The public can listen in at (877) 402-9757, with access code 1461160#, according to the court.

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