A coalition of environmental groups on Wednesday sued the Trump administration over its efforts to expand offshore drilling, arguing the move violates the president’s legal authority, threatens a multitude of wildlife and could harm the fishing and tourism industries.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Alaska, comes days after President Trump signed an executive order aimed at jump-starting offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, as well as assessing whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic. The policy could open millions of acres of federal waters for oil and gas leasing, just months after President Barack Obama withdrew the areas from possible development.
At a signing Friday in the Roosevelt Room, Trump emphasized that the United States has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves and made clear his intention to tap them if possible. “We’re opening it up,” he said.
Wednesday’s lawsuit argues that Trump’s executive order exceeds his constitutional and statutory authority. It notes that Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Acts to permanently end drilling in much of the Arctic and key parts of the Atlantic but says that no president has ever undone or reversed such a decision and that the law “does not authorize the president to reopen withdrawn areas.”
“The permanent protections President Obama established for the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans were won with years of research, lobbying and organizing,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. Until Wednesday, his group had never filed a legal challenge. “Offshore drilling and the associated threat of devastating oil spills puts coastal economies and ways of life at risk while worsening the consequences of climate change. Now, President Trump is trying to erase all the environmental progress we’ve made, and we aren’t about to go down without a fight.”
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, called Trump’s order an example of his administration’s “single-minded focus on fossil fuel extraction at the expense of every other value.”
“Exposing the enormously sensitive ecosystems of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to the risk of a catastrophic oil spill is playing roulette with the nation’s coasts, wildlife, birds and fish. It is also manifestly illegal,” Clark said in an statement. “No president has ever before tried to undo a previous president’s determination, made under a specific grant of authority from Congress, that ecologically sensitive offshore waters deserve protection from the risks inherent in oil drilling. We do not need and cannot use the oil that may lie under these waters if we ever hope to meet our nation’s commitment to addressing climate change.”
Other groups joining the lawsuit include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Wilderness Society.
A White House official on Wednesday said the administration is “confident that President Trump’s common-sense decision to boost our energy sector will be vindicated in the judicial process.”
Even Trump administration officials have acknowledged that it would take a couple of years or longer to rewrite federal leasing plans and open up areas of the Arctic and Atlantic to drilling. And if global oil prices remain low, that could deter investors from pursuing offshore drilling in the near term, despite the administration’s efforts to make more areas eligible for development. That said, the administration and supporters of the president’s approach have argued that future oil demand and prices remain uncertain and that the country ought to keep open the option to drill offshore.
Last week, Vice President Pence described the executive order as “an important step toward American energy independence” that would generate additional U.S. jobs.
Wednesday’s lawsuit marks the latest effort by activists to challenge the Trump administration’s energy and environmental policies in the courts. Groups such as Earthjustice and others, for example, have filed suits over Trump’s order to approve two pipeline projects and over an order aimed at opening tens of thousands of acres of public lands to coal leasing. They also have opposed other measures, such as efforts to roll back the Obama administration’s key regulation to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants and a move to delay the implementation of tougher standards to limit smog that were finalized in 2015.
Also Wednesday, the Sierra Club and other groups sued the head of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency over a recent decision to halt an Obama-era regulation aimed at limiting the dumping of toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury by the nation’s power plants into public waterways.
Beginning in 2018, power plants would have had to begin showing that they were using the most up-to-date technology to remove heavy metals — including lead, arsenic, mercury and other pollutants — from their wastewater. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced last month that the agency would postpone compliance deadlines for the regulation while it reconsiders the rule, which is also being challenged in a federal court.
“These standards would have tackled the biggest source of toxic water pollution in the country, and now the Trump EPA is trying to toss them out. It’s indefensible,” Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement. “The EPA didn’t even pretend to seek public input before plowing ahead with this rollback that could allow millions of pounds of preventable toxic pollution to go into our water.”