(Bloomberg) — Environmental groups are challenging President Donald Trump’s attempt to restore oil and gas leasing on more than 125 million acres in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, arguing that a warming world doesn’t need the fossil fuels they contain.
The League of Conservation Voters, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and seven other conservation groups sued Wednesday in federal court in Alaska, taking aim at Trump’s attempt to make the acreage available for a new generation of oil exploration. President Barack Obama had moved to put those areas off limits for new oil leases.
The case joins a flurry of other lawsuits battling Trump’s recent moves to undo environmental regulations and climate policies imposed by his predecessor. It could decide how much authority presidents have to dictate when and where offshore drilling should take place, as the first test of a 64-year-old statute empowering presidents to rule out the activity "from time to time."
"Were President Trump able to get away with this, the country would lose an important tool for protecting its vital interest in clean and vibrant oceans and coasts," said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is both a plaintiff and legal counsel in the case. "By now it’s clear there is no legitimate public interest in further expanding risk to our oceans in pursuit of fossil fuels that we don’t need."
The Natural Defense Council and Earthjustice, environmental litigation groups, are providing lawyers to help fight the case.
An Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment, referring queries to the Justice Department. The Justice Department didn’t have an immediate comment on the lawsuit.
It’s the first lawsuit by the League of Conservation Voters, whose main focus in its 48-year-history has been grading elected lawmakers for their track record supporting the environment.
League President Gene Karpinski said the group was taking the unprecedented step to preserve the hard-fought protections advanced by Obama.
"President Trump is trying to erase all the climate and environmental progress we’ve made," Karpinski said in a Medium post. "We aren’t about to go down without a fight, and by joining this litigation, we are signaling to Congress our resolute and growing commitment to defending the Arctic and Atlantic permanent protections and halting the expansion of risky offshore drilling."
The groups are trying to preserve past Obama declarations withdrawing most U.S. Arctic waters and about 4 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean along the U.S. East Coast from future oil and gas leasing.
In an executive order signed Friday, Trump modified the text of three of Obama’s directives so they now refer to entirely different territory previously designated for protection in 2008.
Trump’s order also explicitly revoked Obama’s designation of a 112,300-square-mile Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience area, an action that was backed by Alaska Natives. The lawsuit filed Wednesday doesn’t target that revocation.
The legal dispute centers on a provision in a 1953 law known as the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that allows the president to, "from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf." Supporters say Trump’s action is in keeping with the authority Congress gave presidents to determine which U.S. coastal waters are up for grabs for oil, natural gas and mineral development.
"There’s no precedent to show a ban should be permanent" and "there is nothing to suggest a subsequent White House cannot overturn the decision," the industry-sponsored Arctic Energy Center said in an emailed statement. The group said the Obama administration’s withdrawals also conflict with Congress’s imperative to make U.S. coastal waters available "for expeditious and orderly development."
The obscure provision had been used to preserve coral reefs and walrus grounds — and environmentalists said it was appropriate for Obama to seize it to protect fragile, remote Arctic waters from energy development.
The law doesn’t give presidents the power to undo a withdrawal of territory once it’s made, the environmentalists said. It’s Congress which has the authority to manage territory belonging to the federal government, and the president can regulate it only to the extent Congress authorizes him to do so, the groups said in the complaint.
"Until Trump, no president has ever tried to reverse a permanent withdrawal" made under that law, the conservation groups said in a joint statement. “President Trump’s April 28 executive order exceeds his constitutional and statutory authority and violates federal law."
Trump has ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consider scheduling new sales of drilling rights along the U.S. coastline, with an eye on annual auctions of territory in the western and central Gulf of Mexico, the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska and the mid- and south-Atlantic. A surge in domestic drilling could unleash American "dominance" in energy production, Zinke told oil industry executives gathered at a summit in Houston.
Trump’s executive order seeking to ban people from six mostly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and his threat to cut off some funding to so-called sanctuary cities have been challenged successfully, so far, with judges blocking their implementation.
The case is League of Conservation Voters v. Trump, 17-cv-000101, U.S. District Court, District of Alaska (Fairbanks.)
Bloomberg News by Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Kartikay Mehrotra