Court hears arguments in case that could curtail Arctic Ocean oil drilling

The Trump administration has re-opened large parts of the Arctic Ocean to oil leasing, but environmental groups are challenging that decision in court. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)

A federal court in Anchorage Friday heard arguments in a case that could close off millions of acres of Arctic waters to oil development.

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A few months after taking office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to re-open large parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas for offshore oil leasing. Former President Barack Obama had withdrawn those areas, citing environmental risks.

Environmental groups are legally challenging President Trump’s ability to undo Obama’s withdrawal.

In court, they argued that Congress gave presidents the power to take offshore areas off the table for oil development, but not the reverse.

Their argument hinges on a single line in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act: “The President of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

“Congress is precise about the amount of power it delegates,” Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said after oral arguments. “It delegated the power to withdraw, but it didn’t in the statute, anywhere, say that a president can revoke withdrawals. That’s a power that’s left to Congress.”

A lawyer for the Trump administration disagreed, arguing that this reading of the law is too narrow and not what Congress intended when it created the legislation in 1953. He argued that if the environmental groups’ reading of the law is correct, the president could hypothetically remove all federal waters from oil development.

“Congress does not hide elephants in mouse holes,” Department of Justice attorney Jeffrey Wood said during oral arguments.

A decision in the case is not expected for months, and no matter the outcome, it’s likely to be appealed. But the outcome could have near-term impacts, because the Trump administration has tentatively proposed holding an oil lease sale in the Beaufort Sea next year.