A federal judge on Friday ruled that President Trump’s decision to reverse Obama-era bans on drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans was illegal. The ruling was a major blow both to oil companies eager to begin drilling in protected swaths of ocean off the coasts of the United States and to the cadre of ex-lobbyists for the oil and gas industries appointed by Trump to lead the Interior Department and the Environmental Protections Agency.
The decision was handed down Friday evening by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason of Alaska, and will serve as a valuable precedent for opponents of the president, who say that his larger efforts to reverse Obama-era (and earlier) environmental protections are unlawful. “The wording of President Obama’s 2015 and 2016 withdrawals indicated that he intended them to extend indefinitely, and therefore be revocable only by an act of Congress,” Gleason said in her decision.
Judge Gleason’s decision will almost certainly be appealed by the private entities involved in the case and the Trump administration, which has made the systematic deregulation of public lands one of its day-to-day priorities. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that represents all aspects of the oil and gas industry, was a defendant in the case. They issued a statement of their dismay following the decision. “In addition to bringing supplies of affordable energy to consumers for decades to come, developing our abundant offshore resources can provide billions in government revenue, create thousands of jobs and will also strengthen our national security,” it said. Setting aside the standard being used to determine what “strengthens national security,” the statement did not appear to address the legal argument being made by Judge Gleason.
That argument, however, may be used to prevent further overreach in cases where the Trump administration is attempting to roll back preexisting protects without a coherent rationale. “The statutes and the Supreme Court have been silent on the authority of a president to modify or reduce a predecessor’s protections of these public lands, waters, or monuments,” Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School told the New York Times. “But these decisions are showing that if a president wants to reverse a predecessor’s environmental policy, they have to give a cogent reason why. Just saying ‘energy dominance’ is not enough. Saying ‘I won the election’ is not enough.”
At issue in the case was the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, a 1953 law that gives the Interior Secretary the power to oversee offshore drilling programs. In its several amendments, however, the act forms a kind of framework of protections and regulations on coastal drilling areas. Past presidents have used the law to set up offshore protections, but President Obama was the first to establish protections without a built-in expiration date. In his effort to roll back those protections soon after taking office, Trump stepped into uncharted legal territory. In doing so he implicitly sought to establish that presidents could single-handedly undo existing protections.
Judge Gleason argued that, had Congress intended to grant presidents the authority to revoke existing bans, it would have said so explicitly in the act.
One vocal critic of Judge Gleason was Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican representing Alaska. “I strongly disagree with this ruling, which asserts that past presidents can bind their successors and only Congress can overturn those decisions,” she said in a statement over the weekend. “That is not the correct interpretation of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and could have catastrophic impacts for offshore development, which creates jobs, generates revenue, and strengthens our national security.” Murkowski, clearly borrowing language from the American Petroleum Institute’s own statement, has received over 800,000 dollars in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry since 2018. She went on to say that the decision would be overturned on appeal, if not in the circuit courts than in a case before the Supreme Court.
Republican Governor Dunleavy of Alaska, another politician in the pocket of the industry, struck back at the ruling over the weekend. Dunleavy’s press secretary said that Judge Gleason’s decision was “bad for Alaska, and bad for the country.” Dunleavy complained that Alaska was one of the few states with direct access to the Pacific Ocean and argued that the government was not taking full advantage of available resources.
The ruling was celebrated by the many environmentalist and Alaska Native groups that initiated the suit following Trump’s effort to revoke the protections. “[Judge Gleason’s decision] affirms our nation’s laws, that the president can’t trample on our laws to the harm of public lands and wildlife,” said Erik Graffe, an attorney for Earthjustice which represented several of the groups involved.
In addition to his efforts to expand offshore drilling, Trump has sought to open up oil drilling in the vast Arctic Refuge, a region populated indigenous Alaskan communities and host to a number of endangered species. According to the administration’s own environmental impact report, the proposed drilling would damage not only the subsistence economies of the people living there, but result in a further “loss of cultural and individual identity associated with subsistence, a loss of traditional knowledge about the land,” and a host of other dangerous and disruptive consequences.
In a separate decision on Friday, Gleason blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to construct a road through protected areas in Alaska for industrial use.
In order to accomplish his vast deregulatory ambitions, Trump has filled the E.P.A. and the Interior Department with people who have spent their careers in the private sector fighting with the federal government as lobbyists and lawyers to open up public lands for drilling and other forms of resource extraction. Chief among them is David Bernhardt, the acting head of the Interior and, until a year ago, one of the most cultivated industry lobbyists in the country. Bernhardt worked for a laundry list of corporations and industry groups in the oil, gas, and agribusiness industries, and many others, and was on retainer for his services until just last year. Compare that with Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protections Agency, who before that worked as a coal industry lobbyist. With so much power located in these industry-friendly agencies under the umbrella of the executive branch, it has fallen to the federal courts to stay the rapid spread of environmental deregulation across the country.