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Judge denies request to halt Trump administration from issuing oil leases in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A federal judge on Tuesday declined a request by conservation groups to prevent the Trump administration from issuing leases for drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though the broader case that seeks to stop the federal government’s oil and gas program in the refuge has not been decided.

The decision came hours before the federal government was set to hold its first-ever oil lease sale for land in the refuge’s coastal plain, at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage denied the motion in the case brought by National Audubon Society and three other conservation groups. They had argued that the judge should halt leases from being given out until the case is fully resolved.

The groups have sued Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging environmental laws had been violated in steps leading up to the lease sale. Organizations including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the North Slope Borough and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., an Alaska Native corporation representing the only village in the refuge, intervened in the case on the side of the federal government.

Gleason heard arguments in the case Monday.

In her 27-page decision Tuesday, she also rejected a request by the conservation groups seeking to stop an exploration plan in the refuge, submitted by the Kaktovik corporation, that would allow large seismic trucks to inch across the frozen tundra in search of the most promising areas to drill.

The exploration plan has not been approved by the federal government, Gleason’s decision pointed out. But she said she would consider a future request from the conservation groups to stop it, if it is approved.

Gleason said that the Audubon Society did not establish a likelihood of “immediate and near-term irreparable harm” if the leases are issued.

The groups “correctly point out that the leases would grant the right to engage in certain ground-disturbing activities, (but) they have not established a likelihood that those activities will occur before the Court issues a final ruling” that deals with the larger questions in the case, she wrote.

Gleason also wrote that “the only exploration activity being actively considered in the near future that plaintiffs have identified is the (exploration program), which ... is not properly before the court at this time. Moreover, plaintiffs have listed various threats to their enjoyment of the Arctic Refuge’s solitude posed by, for example, aircraft noise and the presence of trucks, but they have not shown that these harms are likely to occur during the pendency of this action.”

But, Gleason said, the conservation groups “may be correct that, over time, they may be significantly injured as a result of the planned lease sales on the coastal plain. But these future and cumulative potential effects do not demonstrate the irreparable harm necessary for preliminary injunctive relief at this time.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the Interior Department said the decision was “expected and unsurprising.”

“The Department of the Interior looks forward to proceeding with appropriate dispatch to achieve the clear direction it received from Congress in 2017,” said Nicholas Goodwin with the department’s Office of the Secretary.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, speaking during a virtual town hall on Tuesday evening, called Gleason’s decision “good news for Alaska” and the U.S.

”It’s going to put more oil in the pipeline, it’s going to put people to work,” said Dunleavy, a Republican. “At this point, I think the judge made the right call.”

Gleason was nominated to the court by former President Barack Obama in 2011.

For decades, many Alaska residents and political leaders have pressed for Congress to open the refuge, in hopes that a major oil discovery will long support the Alaska economy. Environmental groups and some Alaska tribes fear drilling will compound global warming and threaten wildlife in the refuge.

Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Audubon Society, said in a statement the case “is by no means over. The court concluded only that for now there is no harm that justifies an injunction. It also recognized that such an action could come very soon with issuance of seismic permits. We will continue to press our case that the agency approved the program unlawfully and that its decision should be overturned.”

The Audubon Society case is one of four brought by conservation groups, some Alaska tribes and 15 states, all seeking to stop the federal government’s oil and gas program, which was approved by a Republican-led Congress in 2017.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a tribal group that helped bring one of those lawsuits, called the decision “disappointing” in a prepared statement.

”We will fight to protect the lands that nourish the Porcupine caribou herd and our people, no matter how long it takes or where it takes us. This administration steamrolled through a disrespectful, harmful, illegal leasing plan, and we plan to stop it. While that didn’t happen today, that day will come.”

In the lease sale, the Bureau of Land Management plans to open bids from companies seeking 10-year leases. Up for grabs to the highest bidder are 22 tracts on the refuge’s coastal plain, most of them about 50,000 acres. Together, the tracts represent about 5% of the 19-million-acre refuge.

The level of interest is unknown. Major banks have vowed they won’t finance oil activity in the refuge. And President-elect Joe Biden opposes drilling there.

The bid opening will be livestreamed at blm.gov/live.

Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed.

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