Groups protest plans for possible lease sale in Beaufort

ANCHORAGE — Federal regulators are preparing an environmental review for a possible offshore lease sale in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea and environmental groups are calling foul.

The legality of Arctic Ocean offshore lease sales is the subject of a federal lawsuit. Environmental groups say it’s irresponsible to plan lease sales ahead of a ruling.

“Rather than moving ahead with expending large amounts of governmental resources for analyses and holding public hearings for a lease sale the court may decide is illegal, the Trump Administration should wait for the court’s decision,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, in a prepared statement.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced last Thursday it would prepare the environmental review in support of a potential oil and gas lease sale in the Beaufort Sea next year. The review would analyze potential effects of leasing, exploration, development and production.

A 30-day public comment period runs through Dec. 17.

The agency scheduled public hearings in three Arctic coast communities followed by a hearing Dec.6 in Anchorage.

“We especially need to hear from residents of the Beaufort Sea communities, letting us know how the proposed leasing area is currently being used and what specific areas need extra attention,” said James Kendall, BOEM’s Alaska region director.

The agency said the proceedings do not mean a final decision to hold a lease sale has been made.

The environmental review process is kicking in before the administration has completed a new national five-year leasing program, circumventing an established public process for offshore development, Oceana officials said Friday.

“Despite the risks of offshore drilling, it appears as though President Trump is charging ahead and that the decision to offer leases for 65 million acres of the Beaufort Sea has already been made, with no regard for the dangers or the established public process,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana’s campaign director.

Former President Barack Obama used executive orders to ban drilling in most U.S. Arctic waters.

President Donald Trump in April 2017 signed his own executive order reversing the bans.

Environmental groups sued, claiming Trump exceeded his power by reversing the ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic as well as dozens of underwater canyons in the Atlantic Ocean.

The case was argued Nov. 9 in Anchorage.

The lawsuit contends Congress has authorized presidents to halt drilling in unleased lands of the outer continental shelf but does not allow them to reopen areas.

Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Wood said the law was meant to be flexible.

He said it was not intended to bind one president with decisions made by the previous one when determining offshore stewardship.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason took the case under advisement.