Photo: Illustration; Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Judge refuses to stop drilling auction in Arctic refuge

A federal judge in Alaska ruled that the Trump administration’s planned auction of oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could proceed as planned.

The order by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, given on late on Tuesday, comes after environmental groups and the indigenous people of north-eastern Alaska sought a preliminary injunction to block the sale in the ecologically sensitive area.

According to a Reuters article, the activities regarding the auction of drilling leases could proceed as planned on Wednesday, 6 January 2021. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started accepting bids at the end of last month.

The ruling can be considered a victory for the Donald Trump’s plan to deliver on an important pillar of his “energy dominance” agenda just two weeks before Joe Biden, an opponent of drilling in ANWR, takes office.

This is also quite a turn, as Gleason previously ruled against Trump administration efforts, including an attempt to open vast areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas leasing and a land trade that would have allowed construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. She was appointed to her position by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Since August, four lawsuits have been filed challenging the plans to auction drilling rights in the potentially energy-rich coastal plain of ANWR along the Beaufort Sea.

In her order, Gleason said the green and native groups had failed to establish that they would suffer irreparable harm as a result of the sale.

If the Bureau approves “ground-disturbing activities” in ANWR before the groups’ original lawsuits are resolved, Gleason wrote, the groups could again seek a court order to block those activities.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group that represents some of the indigenous people of northeastern Alaska that sued to block the auction, said: “Today’s ruling is disappointing but does nothing to change the strength of our lawsuit or our resolve”.

To remind, the Trump administration proposed to loosen Obama-era safety regulations for the oil industry in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska in late November 2020.

The new proposal revised a suite of Obama-era rules crafted to improve safety in the extreme conditions of the Arctic after a Shell drilling rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012. Following the incident, the company abandoned oil exploration in the Arctic and there are no active drilling operations there.

The revisions would specifically eliminate a requirement that oil operators submit a detailed operations plan before filing an exploration request, according to a statement by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The administration would also roll back a rule requiring operators to demonstrate they can quickly deploy containment equipment in case of spills, such as capping stacks or domes.

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