Alaska court to hear challenge to Arctic refuge oil leases

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Conservationists will try to persuade a U.S. judge on Monday to stop the Trump administration from issuing leases to oil and gas companies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The videoconference in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage is expected to determine whether the Bureau of Land Management can open bids in an online lease sale scheduled for Wednesday, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The land agency said in a statement that it’s required by law to create an oil and gas program for the refuge’s coastal plain and hold at least two sales there.

The agency has offered 10-year leases on 22 tracts covering about 1,563 square miles (4,048 square kilometers) in the coastal plain, which accounts for about 5 per cent of the refuge’s area.

Conservation groups described the sale as a last-minute push by the Trump administration to help secure drilling rights for oil companies before President Donald Trump leaves office this month.

The lawsuit was brought by the National Audubon Society and three other conservation groups, which are represented by attorneys with Earthjustice.

Federal attorneys will defend Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others that intervened in the case, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Kara Moriarty, head of the oil and gas group, said she could not discuss the hearing because it is an ongoing legal issue.

The group said in a legal brief that issuing a lease will not cause irreparable injury to the Arctic refuge.

The case is one of four lawsuits from conservationists, Alaska tribal entities and 15 state governments. The lawsuits seek to halt drilling in the refuge after the Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved the lease sale.

Karlin Itchoak, state director for The Wilderness Society in Alaska, a plaintiff in one of the cases, said his group hopes to put the oil leasing issue in the hands of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he opposes drilling in the refuge.

Monday’s arguments will only cover the potential issuing of leases and not resolve the cases.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: RBC latest bank that will not directly fund drilling projects in Alaskan Arctic refuge, CBC News

Finland: Miners hunting for metals to battery cars threaten Finland’s Sámi reindeer herders’ homeland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenland issues new exploration, prospecting licences to Anglo American, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Minister downplays environmental impact of planned mine in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: The Arctic Railway – Building a future or destroying a culture?, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Groups seek to block lease plans for Alaska wildlife refuge, The Associated Press

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