Court Defeat for Trump Is a Win for the Arctic

by Tim Donaghy

April 2, 2019

Trump lost big in court last Friday when a federal judge in Alaska threw out his plan to open up the Arctic Ocean to more oil drilling.

Polar bear jumping on iceflow, Herald Island, Chukchi Sea.

Polar bear jumping on iceflow, Herald Island, Chukchi Sea.

© Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá

Trump lost big in court last Friday. A federal judge in Alaska threw out his plan to open up the Arctic Ocean to more oil drilling. Trump was hoping no one would notice the fact that the Arctic had already been permanently protected from drilling by President Obama, but a coalition of environmental and Alaska Native groups, including Greenpeace, took him to court and won!

This ruling is a vindication of your hard-fought activism to protect the Arctic and roll back the expansion of the oil industry — and it shows that Trump, for all his bluster and crazy tweets, has to respect the rule of law. Here’s how we got here.

Saying No to Shell

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and oil and gas companies have cynically tried to take advantage of the region’s melting ice to search for new places to drill. In 2015, Royal Dutch Shell made a play to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska. Not only would this have been a disaster for the climate, but an oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up. Not to mention that Shell’s history of screw-ups and mistakes didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Greenpeace and the climate movement rose up to say #ShellNo. People piled into kayaks and canoes to confront Shell’s drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, in Seattle.

Polar Pioneer Arrives in Seattle

Kayaks cluster during the Paddle in Seattle, an ‘unwelcoming’ party for Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig.

And when Shell’s icebreaker ran aground and had to return to Portland for repairs, the movement was ready to block the ship’s return.

Shell Bridge Blockade in Portland

People on the Catherdral Park dock and in kayaks cheers on activists under the St. Johns Bridge. The climbers are attempting to block the Shell leased icebreaker, MSV Fennica from passing under the bridge and joining Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet.

In the end, Shell drilled one well but didn’t find any oil, and immediately after, decided to cut its  billion-dollar losses and leave the Arctic.

Obama Protects the Arctic Ocean

Building on this momentum, thousands of people called on President Obama to use his legal authority to make the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits from future oil drilling. In late 2016, Obama took action to permanently protect all of the Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the Beaufort Sea — as well as a number of biologically important undersea canyons in the Atlantic.

Map areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that were withdrawn from oil and gas leasing by President Obama (Source: BOEM).

This was a big victory for the people-powered climate movement, signalling that the relentless expansion of the oil industry into new areas was finally at an end.

But then Trump happened.

The Trump Twist

Trump came into office calling climate change a hoax and giving handouts to dirty energy companies. His plan to open up nearly every U.S. coastline to more oil and gas drilling was extremely unpopular, and in the case of the Arctic Ocean, it outright ignored the fact that Obama had already ruled out future leasing there.

Trump’s new offshore oil plan called for lease sales in the Beaufort Sea starting in 2019 and the Chukchi Sea in 2020. In response, Greenpeace joined with other groups in a lawsuit to challenge the plan in court. Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council led the litigation, representing Greenpeace along with Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, League of Conservation Voters, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society.

The key issue was that when Congress enacted the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), it gave the president authority to withdraw areas from oil and gas leasing, but made no mention of revoking previous withdrawals. That’s an act that only Congress itself can take. Judge Sharon Gleason agreed with this analysis, and as she stated in her ruling, Obama’s withdrawals “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.”

The government may appeal this ruling, but for now this is a big victory for the climate.

Will the next president Keep It In The Ground?

Trump has been losing in court — a lot. One tally shows that Trump has lost more than 90% of his attempts at deregulation in his first two years in office. This latest ruling spells trouble for Trump’s plans to boost fossil fuel production. The Interior Department may have to delay the release of its controversial Five-Year Program for offshore oil drilling and reconsider its scheduled lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

It’s also clear that this ruling could embolden the next president to go even further in protecting our coasts from offshore oil. We know that we can’t drill for more oil in coastal waters and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius at the same time. That means the next president has a choice — will they side with people or polluters?

Click here to take action to demand strong climate leaders in the 2020 election.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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