By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Judge rejects state lawsuit to start oil and gas work in ANWR


August 23, 2023

A federal judge has upheld decisions by President Joe Biden and the Department of the Interior that temporarily suspended work needed to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

In a 74-page order published Aug. 7, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled in favor of the federal government and against the state of Alaska, its state-owned development corporation and several other plaintiffs.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the development bank, is the sole remaining oil and gas leaseholder in the refuge. It paid several million dollars to purchase the leases during a 2021 sale mandated by Congress.

The judge’s decision means AIDEA cannot proceed with pre-development surveys and other work on its leases. It must await the results of a new environmental assessment expected later this year.

The state has been interested in developing ANWR’s coastal plain for decades under the belief that it may contain billions of barrels of crude oil and substantial deposits of natural gas. However, commercial interest has been limited; two small firms also bid on the 2021 ANWR leases but later surrendered them.

The state’s determination and fierce environmental opposition have turned ANWR into a contentious issue nationally.

The Biden administration paused pre-development work in the refuge on the president’s first day in office, with Biden ordering the Secretary of the Interior to “place a temporary moratorium on all activities of the federal government relating to the implementation of the coastal plain oil and gas leasing program.”

That pause was extended as the Department of the Interior ordered a new environmental analysis, concluding that one performed during the Trump administration was inadequate.

Citing the pause, federal officials refused to allow AIDEA or third-party contractors to perform seismic surveys and other work needed before productive drilling.

AIDEA, backed by the state, two Alaska Native corporations and the North Slope Borough, sued the federal government in November 2021, saying that the temporary halt violates federal law and is intended to permanently stop work.

After almost two years of legal arguments, Gleason concluded that neither AIDEA’s leases nor federal law provide a deadline by which the federal government “must allow oil and gas activities on the coastal plain to proceed after a lease sale is conducted.”

She said that neither the state, AIDEA, nor any other plaintiff “identified any provision or source of federal law that precludes a temporary moratorium for the purpose of ensuring that the program comports with the law.”

Gleason said further that there is “no genuine dispute” that federal officials have changed their minds on ANWR development, but that the federal government has not crossed any legal lines set by Congress. “Agency defendants have not canceled, rescinded, nullified, or otherwise undone the first lease sale,” she said.

Attorneys familiar with the case noted that an appeal may be moot. The federal government is expected to deliver a revised environmental impact statement by the end of September, and that could lead to a decision that changes, confirms or voids the ANWR development program altogether.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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