Court’s Denial of Motion to Dismiss Advances Blocks of Offshore Drilling

Katelyn Scott
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2019
Associate Editor

Congress has granted the President the authority to withdraw the Secretary of the Interior’s grants of mineral rights on public lands. However, President Trump has used that same grant of power to remove withdraws of some of the protections President Obama placed. On May 3, 2017, a group of environmental non-profits filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration in the Federal District Court of Alaska, alleging that his actions were an unauthorized use his Presidential power. On March 20, 2018, the Court denied the Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Original Plan and Lawsuit

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) provides a general authority for the Secretary of the Interior to lease lands for mineral development because the submerged lands are a Federal responsibility. Further, OSCLA allows a President to withdraw these leases to protect land and waters. Under Section 12(a) of OCSLA, President Obama withdrew a number of unleased public lands on the outer continental shelf from offshore exploration and development, effectively protecting the waters.

With the change in administrations, President Trump removed the withdrawals made by President Obama on the land, leaving the area and surrounding Arctic waters unprotected. Environmental groups subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging President Trump’s authority to undo permanent leasing withdrawals in the Arctic. The complaint further alleges that this action is a threat to many endangered species in the area because of the disruption to the habitat through noise and activities.

President Trump is the first president to attempt to undo or reverse any withdrawals on the outer continental shelf.  Environmental groups, including NRDC and Earthjustice argue that there is no authority to withdraw by executive order and that there is no other source that grants authority to withdraw. President Trump’s withdrawal covers more than 120 million acres of ocean territory. There are approximately 89.98 billion barrels worth of oil spread across 98% of the 120 million acre territory. Under the President’s reversal, the leasing of these lands would begin in 2019 and continue until 2024.

Motion to Dismiss

The Trump Administration, as Defendants in this case, filed the motion to dismiss claiming sovereign immunity under §702 of the Administrative Procedural Act, lack of a private right of action, lack of authority to issue declaratory relief, lack of standing, and lack of subject matter jurisdiction. However, the Court ruled that sovereign immunity does not apply because this is a challenge to the President’s statutory authority. Furthermore, that this is not a case of private right of action because the plaintiffs do not seek to enforce any federal laws. While the Court has limited ability to issue a declaratory judgment, there are other reliefs that the court can provide.

As a result, the Court will hear arguments for summary judgment based on standing and jurisdiction in the coming months.

Beyond the Court

The Court’s ruling came only a few months after Congress voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural drilling. While this opening may take time, because of the requirement of permits and other environmental reviews required, the Court’s ruling may change the Alaskan drilling industry in a way that makes this action impossible. Further, the Department of Interior has stated that it wants quick action on the drilling permits and for the environmental studies and impact statements to be wrapped up in a year. This may impact the Court’s previous reliance evidence of the harm done or predicted to occur to the habitat and marine life; the risk of harm to the environment escalates when companies are granted permits.

Many State lawmakers in Alaska support the opening of the state to drilling activity. It’s been predicted that the discovery of Alaskan oil take a large chunk of the state’s deficit. This news came at the same time the State was passing its annual budget mid-March 2018, with efforts to fix the large deficit. Some argue the limits on access to the territory based on this case may have a large, potentially positive effect on the economy of Alaska and the future of their state through the increase in access to oil.

However, the proponents of this case argue the Court ruling against President Trump’s executive order not only blocks oil, but also limits the possibility of creating other sustainable energy sources, such as wind farms in these areas. The National Energy Renewable Laboratory states that these wind farms could produce enough energy for hundreds of millions of Americans. Other states have begun to move forward with the production of wind farms on the coast from, New York to Virginia. A ruling that limits oil from getting into the area may create a new source of economic growth in Alaska through wind energy.

The Alaska District Court’s decision in League of Conservation Voters et al. v. Trump et al., will determine the outcome of these debates. Further, the decision may be a large win for environmental groups pushing for cleaner energy sources because of the close ties the case has gotten with potential wind farms.