ANCHORAGE (CN) — Major oil companies passed on the opportunity to drill in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during a long-awaited oil lease sale Wednesday, an anticlimactic culmination of one of President Donald Trump’s biggest environmental rollbacks.
Environmentalists and the oil industry have battled over drilling in the refuge for decades, with environmentalists saying drilling would harm the environment and wildlife such as polar bears, wolves, caribou.
Industry advocates and local residents say the drilling will be restricted to one area of the refuge and can be done responsibly while benefiting economically depressed local communities.
Alaska’s state agency for economic development bid on some of the leases and small companies bid on others. The sale generated $14.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Interior — far short of the expected take.
The sale came after a federal judge in Alaska denied injunctive relief Tuesday to environmental groups on the eve of a first-ever oil and gas lease sale in the expansive refuge, which encompasses approximately 19 million acres of Alaskan Wilderness.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, a Barack Obama appointee, heard oral arguments by teleconference on Monday afternoon in a case brought by the National Audubon Society and three other environmental groups attempting to stop the sale.
The plaintiffs argued that lease sales should not be held until several broader lawsuits over refuge development are decided and that seismic exploration associated with the leases will cause irreparable harm and was not fully taken into account by rushed federal environmental impact statements produced by the BLM.
Environmental groups, along with representatives of the Alaska Native Gwich’in tribe that inhabits Arctic Village on the southern boundary of the refuge and relies on migrating caribou to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, insist the area should be left for roving herds of caribou, polar bears and other rare wildlife. Several oil and gas companies, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, and representatives of the Alaska Native Inupiaq village of Kaktovik on the northern edge of the refuge argued in support of the sale and future drilling that they say would benefit the economy.
Lawyers for pro-development groups argue that there is no harm in allowing a lease sale to proceed as it will still be some time before any actual development can take place and the sale will bring an influx of needed tax dollars to the state and jobs for Kaktovik villagers who would be assisting in exploration.
Meanwhile, Audubon’s lawyers with Earthjustice say that it is very hard to stop exploration and development once it’s allowed to proceed.
“BLM’s rush to award leases and authorize seismic exploration under the Program seeks to lock in place the unlawful Program and threatens irreparable harm to the fragile permafrost that supports all life on the Coastal Plain and to Plaintiffs’ members’ enjoyment and use of the area,” the complaint stated.
Gleason’s order Tuesday pointed out the high legal standards necessary to win an injunction. The judge said the groups seeking an injunction failed to show “irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief,” given that oil companies still must obtain additional permits before drilling wells or searching for oil after leases are sold.
“Speculative injury does not constitute irreparable injury,” she wrote.
During oral arguments, Earthjustice attorneys disagreed, pointing out that approval of lease sales will give rise to “bureaucratic momentum” toward continued approvals for exploration, including on-the-ground activities like seismic testing and aircraft overflights, which threaten the solitude protected in federal laws that set aside the Arctic Refuge for the use of wildlife and public enjoyment.
Gleason’s order noted that the sale of leases is separate from a seismic permit application requested by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation. Since the KIC permit is still pending action by BLM the court is unable to review it, siding with the argument made by federal lawyers that selling leases does not also authorize seismic activity.
“While the Court recognizes that ‘ureaucratic rationalization and bureaucratic momentum are real dangers,’ the Court concludes that such risk by itself does not establish a likelihood of irreparable harm in this case,” Gleason wrote.
Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe expressed disappointment with the ruling but vowed to continue the fight.
“We will continue to press our case that the agency approved the program unlawfully and that its decision should be overturned,” Grafe said in a statement.