Federal judge will weigh request to block oil leasing in Arctic refuge

Two silhouetted figures in the distance around some lakes with mountains in the background
Research biologists pause among the wetlands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, with the Brooks Range in the background. The federal government is planning to auction of drilling rights for 1 million acres of land in the coastal plain, roughly 5% of the refuge. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

With the first-ever oil lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just two days away, a federal judge in Anchorage will consider a request Monday to stop the Trump administration from issuing the oil leases. 

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason will hear oral arguments by videoconference at 1 p.m., in a case brought by the National Audubon Society and three other environmental groups.

The groups argued in a lawsuit filed in August that the federal government failed to follow numerous laws meant to protect wildlife, land, water and people when it crafted its oil-leasing program for the Arctic refuge in northeast Alaska.

The Trump administration is now set to open bids Wednesday in the first-ever lease sale in the refuge. It’s offering drilling rights to 22 tracts of land that cover about 1 million acres in the northernmost slice of the refuge, called the coastal plain.

But whether the oil leases actually go to the highest bidders could be up to Gleason. 

RELATED: Alaska’s state development corporation approved to spend up to $20M on ANWR oil leases

The environmental groups are asking her to block the government from issuing the leases until the broader lawsuit is resolved. They’re asking for a decision by Wednesday, and Gleason has said she’ll try to enter a ruling by then.

There are two other similar requests also working their way through the court system.

RELATED: Gwich’in, conservation groups ask court to block ANWR oil leasing

The groups say the Trump administration is rushing to lock in oil drilling in the refuge in the president’s final weeks, before the court can determine the legality of its plan.

“Its haste threatens permanent harm by locking in government decision-making and scarring the Refuge in ways that cannot be undone,” wrote lawyers for the National Audubon Society and other environmental groups in their request for a judge to intervene.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is the agency handling the lease sale. It has defended its process, saying it’s following the 2017 tax law, which opened the refuge to drilling after decades of debate. The law says the government must hold the first lease sale in the refuge by the end of 2021.

Each side will have 20 minutes Monday to argue their points in federal court. People can listen to the hearing at 877-402-9757, with access code 1461160#.

RELATED: The lease sale is set, but how much oil actually is under ANWR’s coastal plain?

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.