Bending Toward Justice: Federal court green lights challenge to Trump oil drilling plan for Arctic

Photo: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A coalition of environmental and Native Alaskan groups sued to stop the Trump administration from permitting seismic surveying of areas in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. After a federal court order late Monday, that case may now proceed on the merits.

For every careful, measured decision made by President Barack Obama, Donald Trump makes two impetuous decisions to undo Obama’s policy. When fossil fuels are involved, Trump doubles the urgency of his reckless, drill at all costs approach.

So it was with Obama’s decisions in 2015 and 2016 to permanently remove a combined 126 million acres of coastal waters in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas development, using his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Obama cited the health and safety of polar bears, walruses, whales, seals, and numerous mammals, birds, fish and other wildlife, some of which is threatened or endangered, that make their homes in those oceans. He also sought to protect the subsistence needs of Native Alaskans.

Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that reversed Obama’s decision, and called for increased energy exploration on the outer continental shelf. The next day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke implemented the president’s order by calling for expedited considering of seismic permitting applications.

Ten environmental and Native Alaskan groups represented by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, Alaska. In their complaint, the groups allege that Trump acted ultra vires — meaning beyond his legal authority — to reverse a permanent decision by his predecessor. They argue that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives a president authority only to withdraw land from exploration, but not to re-enter land withdrawn by a previous president. And without congressional authority, Trump acted beyond his enumerated powers under the Constitution.

Instead of meeting the claims head on, the Trump administration filed a motion to dismiss and raised a handful of jurisdictional arguments — that the plaintiffs hadn’t suffered any injury; that any injury was too remote and speculative; and that there wasn’t any basis for the court’s review of an Presidential executive order.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason rejected those arguments and denied the administration’s motion to dismiss. Judge Gleason then ordered the parties to quickly propose a schedule for summary judgment. That’s the process by which the court can resolve the legal issues through briefs, without having to go through a trial.

“This an important reminder that the President is not above judicial review of his actions, but it is just the first step,” Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “The threat of devastating oil spills associated with Trump’s risky offshore drilling proposal puts coastal economies and ways of life at risk while worsening the consequences of climate change. We look forward to working with our fellow plaintiffs to show in court that the President acted outside his authority when he removed protections for these waters.”