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Trump Admin Moves Forward with Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling Plan, Setting Up Another Legal Fight

The Trump administration announced on Monday that it had finalized plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), setting the stage for another legal battle.

President Donald Trump has touted in recent days and weeks an America that is “now energy-independent for the first time I guess ever.” “And we are very powerful on energy,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity last week. During the interview, Hannity specifically highlighted the opening of ANWR to drilling.

While some locals have gone on record to say they support ANWR drilling—citing potential economic benefits—others have promised to take the Trump administration to court in a bid to protect the environment. Per the Washington Post on Monday:

Environmentalists and some Alaska Natives – including the Gwich’in, who live outside the refuge but rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd that migrates through it – have pledged to fight the drilling plan in court. Under the 2017 law, the federal government must conduct two lease sales of 400,000 acres each by December 2024.

Stretching into the Arctic Ocean’s frigid waters and 200 miles south on land, the refuge encompasses rolling tundra, jagged mountains and boreal forest. It provides habitat for more than 270 different species, including 900 denning polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300,000 snow geese. While Congress authorized drilling on the coastal plain in 1980, opponents have managed to block energy development there for decades.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that oil lease auctions could happen by the close of 2020. Bernhardt, perhaps anticipating legal challenges, said that the plan was above-board and in compliance with relevant statutes.

“Congress gave us a very clear directive here, and we have to carry out that directive consistent with the directive that they gave, and consistent with the procedural statutes. I have a remarkable degree of confidence that this can be done in a way that is responsible, sustainable and environmentally benign,” Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal.

The directive Bernhardt is referring to can be found in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The law spelled out what Interior Secretary shall do regarding ANWR:

SEC. 20001. OIL AND GAS PROGRAM.

(a) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:
(1) COASTAL PLAIN.—The term ‘‘Coastal Plain’’ means the
area identified as the 1002 Area on the plates prepared by the United States Geological Survey entitled ‘‘ANWR Map – Plate 1’’ and ‘‘ANWR Map – Plate 2’’, dated October 24, 2017, and on file with the United States Geological Survey and the Office of the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior.
(2) SECRETARY.—The term ‘‘Secretary’’ means the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Land Management. (b) OIL AND GAS PROGRAM.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—Section 1003 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. 3143) shall not apply to the Coastal Plain.
(2) ESTABLISHMENT.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary shall establish and administer a competitive oil and gas program for the leasing, development, production, and transportation of oil and gas in and from the Coastal Plain.
(B) PURPOSES.—Section 303(2)(B) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (Public Law 96– 487; 94 Stat. 2390) is amended—
(i) in clause (iii), by striking ‘‘and’’ at the end;
(ii) in clause (iv), by striking the period at the end and inserting ‘‘; and’’; and
(iii) by adding at the end the following:
‘‘(v) to provide for an oil and gas program on the Coastal Plain.’’.
(3) MANAGEMENT.—Except as otherwise provided in this section, the Secretary shall manage the oil and gas program on the Coastal Plain in a manner similar to the administration of lease sales under the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C. 6501 et seq.) (including regulations).
(4) ROYALTIES.—Notwithstanding the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 181 et seq.), the royalty rate for leases issued pursu- ant to this section shall be 16.67 percent.
(5) RECEIPTS.—Notwithstanding the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 181 et seq.), of the amount of adjusted bonus, rental, and royalty receipts derived from the oil and gas program and operations on Federal land authorized under this section—
(A) 50 percent shall be paid to the State of Alaska; and
(B) the balance shall be deposited into the Treasury as miscellaneous receipts.
(c) 2 LEASE SALES WITHIN 10 YEARS.— (1) REQUIREMENT.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—Subject to subparagraph (B), the Secretary shall conduct not fewer than 2 lease sales area- wide under the oil and gas program under this section by not later than 10 years after the date of enactment of this Act.
(B) SALE ACREAGES; SCHEDULE.—
(i) ACREAGES.—The Secretary shall offer for lease under the oil and gas program under this section— (I) not fewer than 400,000 acres area-wide
in each lease sale; and
(II) those areas that have the highest potential for the discovery of hydrocarbons.
(ii) SCHEDULE.—The Secretary shall offer—(I) the initial lease sale under the oil and gas program under this section not later than 4 years after the date of enactment of this Act; and
(II) a second lease sale under the oil and gas program under this section not later than 7 years after the date of enactment of this Act.
(2) RIGHTS-OF-WAY.—The Secretary shall issue any rights- of-way or easements across the Coastal Plain for the exploration, development, production, or transportation necessary to carry out this section.
(3) SURFACE DEVELOPMENT.—In administering this section, the Secretary shall authorize up to 2,000 surface acres of Federal land on the Coastal Plain to be covered by production and support facilities (including airstrips and any area covered by gravel berms or piers for support of pipelines) during the term of the leases under the oil and gas program under this section.

David J. Hayes, a top Obama-era Interior Department official, told the Post that the “statutory language is a real tripwire for these guys.”

“[T]he leasing, development, production and transportation of oil and gas in and from the Coastal Plain area within the Arctic refuge,” he said. “You can’t just take the first step of the program.”

Bernhardt, for his part, reiterated that the program “meets the legal mandate that Coastal Plain leaseholders get the necessary rights-of-way, easements and land areas for production and support facilities they need to find and develop these important Arctic oil and gas resources.”

[Image via Win McNamee/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.