Environmentalists sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over an executive order aimed at increasing access to offshore oil and gas production that could include areas where former President Barack Obama banned drilling.
Ten environmental organizations filed the lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, arguing President Donald Trump does not have the legal authority to undo Obama’s indefinite ban on offshore drilling in much of the Arctic Ocean and portions of the Atlantic Ocean.
Trump signed an executive order on April 28 calling on the Department of the Interior to review the Obama administration’s plan for offshore drilling leases from 2017 to 2022, which the groups anticipate will lead to leases in areas restricted by Obama’s ban.
The lawsuit hinges on a federal statute that allows the president to indefinitely designate certain areas off-limits to offshore drilling, but the law does not spell out whether a subsequent president can nullify that designation. The plaintiffs, which include the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued in their brief that Trump does not have the right to undo Obama’s ban because the law does not explicitly give him that authority.
Obama initially excluded offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans in the 2017-2022 five-year plan, and then imposed an indefinite ban in December, citing the risk of a spill in environmentally sensitive areas. During the Obama administration the Pentagon had also objected to drilling activity in some parts of the Atlantic.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters last week the process of reviewing the five-year drilling plan could take about two years. A lawsuit could further extend that timeline.
“We just went through a two-year review by the Obama administration,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The idea that the Trump administration would spend a bunch of money to do more studies and hold more meetings, which is required in this review, would be a terrible waste.”
Supporters of drilling in the Arctic have argued that Trump has the right to undo Obama’s ban, and they say economic benefits will follow.
“We believe that President Trump’s order is lawful and will play a critical role in catalyzing the creation of a thriving, self-sustaining economy in America’s Arctic,” Oliver Williams, spokesman for the Arctic Energy Center, said in a statement Wednesday.
The lawsuit focuses on a provision in the executive order that amends the existing language on drilling bans so that it does not include Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic ban. But the order does not explicitly state that it would undo the ban.
Niel Lawrence, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he believes the language was crafted so the Trump administration could argue that the lawsuit filed Wednesday is premature.
“The wording of Section 5 is as bizarre a piece of an executive order as I have ever seen in my life,” Lawrence said in a phone interview, referring to the section that alters the definition of areas that are banned for offshore drilling. “It’s drafted to pursue a legal fig leaf that somebody thinks is going to turn into an argument in court. But it’s not.”
The White House and Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment.