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September 9, 2020
Contact: stateimpactcenter@nyu.edu

State Attorneys General Challenge Trump Administration Plan to Open Pristine Arctic Refuge to Oil & Gas Drilling

Coalition warns drilling would permanently scar the Coastal Plain, an area of “unrivaled and inestimable conservation value” within “[o]ur nation’s largest and wildest refuge.”

Washington, D.C. — A coalition of 15 attorneys general led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit today challenging the Trump administration’s decision to begin leasing fragile and ecologically vital public lands within the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
The Coastal Plain is a “1.56 million-acre national treasure, unparalleled in its biological significance for hundreds of species, including caribou, threatened polar bears, and millions of birds that migrate to and from six continents and through all 50 states.” The attorneys general warn that the administration’s unlawful actions “severely underestimate the avoidable and irreparable damage to vital habitat and pristine waters, imperil wildlife already struggling to thrive in a rapidly changing ecosystem, and increase greenhouse gas emissions at a time when our nation and the world drastically need to reduce emissions to mitigate the most extreme harms of climate change.”
“President Trump’s plan to open up America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is the latest egregious example of his administration’s four-year assault on our environment,” said AG Ferguson. “President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt — a former lobbyist for Big Oil — unlawfully cut corners in their haste to allow drilling in this pristine, untamed wildlife refuge to oil and gas development. I’m leading a coalition of states to hold the Trump Administration accountable to the rule of law and block this unlawful drilling plan.”
“President Trump’s plan to open up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development will increase pollution and deepen the climate emergency — a crisis his Administration doesn’t think exists,” said AG Healey. “Climate change is already wreaking havoc on our economy and coastal communities. We are suing to stop this Administration from destroying our environment, our natural resources, precious wildlife, and thriving clean energy economies.”
In their complaint, the attorneys general emphasize that the Trump administration’s leasing plan and underlying National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis:
1) Are Incompatible With the Purposes of the Arctic Refuge — The Arctic Refuge was created under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) explicitly for conservation purposes. Oil and gas leasing is a new “use” that must be formally determined by the Secretary of the Interior to be compatible with the Arctic Refuge’s conservation purposes — a determination that the Trump administration failed to make, in violation of the Refuge Administration Act. The administration’s leasing plan “materially interferes with or detracts from the fulfillment of the mission of the [National Wildlife] Refuge System and purposes of the Arctic Refuge because it unlawfully prioritizes oil and gas development above the conservation purposes of the Refuge System and the Arctic Refuge.”
2) Give Inadequate Consideration to Project Alternatives — By exclusively analyzing project alternatives that prioritize oil and gas development over the Arctic Refuge’s fundamental conservation purposes, the Trump administration violated NEPA’s mandate that federal agencies “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives” to a proposed action.
3) Fail to Adequately Analyze Climate Impacts — The administration drastically underestimates the significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions that will result from the leasing program, including by failing to assess the program’s impacts on global energy demand and irrationally concluding that “96% of Coastal Plain production will replace other U.S. production.” The administration also failed to adequately analyze methane emissions and the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development and production in the Arctic Refuge. The attorneys general note that their states are already experiencing a wide range of “devastating and increasingly severe climate impacts” that would be exacerbated by the leasing program, imposing steep costs that the administration failed to quantify.
4) Fail to Adequately Analyze Impacts on Migratory Birds — The administration’s environmental impact statement “fails to include critical baseline data about migratory birds in the Coastal Plain,” and instead “relies on conclusory, unsupported statements and stale data.”  The administration also “substantially understates the impact on migratory birds by predicating its incomplete analysis on surface disturbance acreage that is significantly less than what is reasonably foreseeable” under the leasing program. Together, these deficiencies impair consideration of mitigation measures that could reduce harmful impacts on the “more than 156 migratory bird species [that] depend on the Coastal Plain’s unique ecosystem.”
5) Violate Congress’s Restrictions on Surface Development — When Congress “abruptly ended the nearly 40-year ban on oil and gas development on the Coastal Plain” through provisions in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, it imposed a number of requirements for the leasing program, including a 2,000-acre limit on surface development. The administration’s decision “unlawfully and irrationally” interprets the restriction to apply “only to a narrow subset of facilities that are both ‘production and support’ facilities,” and to exclude many other facilities such as airstrips, roads and gravel mines. By “allowing surface disturbance on the Coastal Plain to exceed the 2,000-acre limit Congress imposed,” this strained interpretation amounts to an unlawful end-run around Congress.
In March 2019, a coalition of 16 attorneys general led by AG Ferguson and AG Healey filed comments highlighting numerous flaws in the administration’s draft environmental impact statement for the Coastal Plain leasing program. The comments detailed many of the same deficiencies outlined in the complaint filed today — deficiencies the administration subsequently failed to address — and also noted that the administration dramatically overstated the leasing program’s potential economic benefits while downplaying the “serious and irreparable environmental harms that would occur” as a result of oil and gas development on the Coastal Plain.
The attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont joined AG Ferguson and AG Healey in filing the lawsuit.


About the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center
The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center (State Impact Center) is a non-partisan Center at the NYU School of Law that is dedicated to helping state attorneys general fight against regulatory rollbacks and advocate for clean energy, climate change, and environmental values and protections. For more information, visit our website