OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced recently that he is leading a coalition of 15 states filing a federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration to protect America’s pristine and undeveloped Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas development.
The Coastal Plain is a 1.6 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 the lower 48 states. The area is sacred to the indigenous Gwich’in people and is particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors, including climate change, which has caused thinning sea ice and thawing of permafrost in the region.
Despite that, the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior has authorized an oil and gas drilling program that will cause irreparable damage to one of the few remaining wild places in the nation. Congress had protected the Coastal Plain from drilling for more than 40 years until a provision in the 2017 Republican tax bill opened the door for development. The administration’s agency decision makes the entire Coastal Plain available for leasing.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed recently in U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, asserts that the Trump Administration’s drilling plan violates multiple laws, including the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (Refuge Administration Act), the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (Tax Act). Among its many unlawful violations, the administration conducted a flawed environmental review that failed to take a hard look at the drilling plan’s impacts on migratory birds, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change.
In fact, despite the overwhelming and increasingly harmful impacts of climate change in the United States and around the world, the Trump Administration’s environmental review for the drilling plan declares, “[T]here is not a climate crisis.”
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that the Trump Administration’s unlawful action irreparably harms Washington State in at least three key ways.
First, by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the drilling will exacerbate the impacts of climate change on Washington’s environment and economy, including the hundreds of millions of dollars the shellfish industry contributes to Washington’s economy.
Second, the drilling will have devastating impacts on migratory birds that migrate through Washington, including snow geese, red-throated and pacific loons, western sandpipers, golden plovers and long-tailed ducks. In 2011, bird and wildlife watching contributed $3.2 billion to the state’s economy.
Third, Washington will likely bear the impacts of refining oil that is extracted from the Coastal Plain.
“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,” Ferguson said. “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.”
“The plan to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is the latest strike against the environment and common sense,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “Hard to say what’s worse — destroying the nation’s largest wildlife refuge, or further inflaming the climate crisis with new oil and gas drilling so a few fossil fuel companies can profit at the people’s expense. This is a moral, environmental and economic disaster. I am grateful to Attorney General Ferguson and his staff for taking action to protect our environment.”
Ferguson’s lawsuit, joined by 14 attorneys general, is one of several legal challenges to the Trump administration’s oil and gas development plan. Massachusetts is co-leading the lawsuit. The Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council — whose members are part of the larger Gwich’in Nation — also filed a lawsuit today to protect a place the Gwich’in people hold sacred.
“Our people are united in the defense of our way of life,” said First Chief Galen Gilbert of the Arctic Village Council. “As tribal governments, we have a responsibility to our citizens to defend this sacred place. I am thankful we are joined in this effort by other state governments who likewise share this duty of responsibility to their people. Together, we will protect this sacred place. Not only for the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in, but for all Americans.”
The Arctic Refuge, often referred to as “America’s Serengeti,” was established in 1960. In total, the Arctic Refuge, sometimes referred to by its acronym ANWR, covers nearly 20 million acres of land in northeastern Alaska, and provides important habitat for caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves and millions of migratory birds.
The refuge was specifically created and managed to preserve the area’s unique ecology, as well as conserving fish and wildlife populations and habitat.
The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge covers about 1.6 million acres along the Beaufort Sea, north of the Arctic Circle, at the eastern edge of Alaska’s famed North Slope. The Coastal Plain is the most biologically diverse area of the refuge.
Attempts to open the refuge’s Coastal Plain for oil drilling have persisted for decades but repeatedly failed. A rider added to the Trump Administration’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 authorized oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain for the first time in its more than half-century of existence. The legislation directed the federal Bureau of Land Management to conduct the first lease sale by 2021.
Drilling Plan’s Impacts to Washington
Washington and other states shoulder the severe ecological, economic and health consequences of climate change. For example, without greenhouse gas mitigation, ocean acidification — the ocean’s absorption of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — along Washington’s coast is expected to cause a 34 percent decline in shellfish survival by 2100, threatening thousands of Washington jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars the shellfish industry contributes to the state’s economy. Washington’s shellfish industry contributed $184 million to Washington’s economy in 2010 and employed 2,710 workers.
Moreover, the administration’s environmental analysis unlawfully failed to take a hard look at the impact the drilling plan will have on millions of migratory birds that transit between the refuge and the lower 48 states. States devote significant resources to the management and conservation of these migratory birds, and bird and wildlife watching contributes billions of dollars to their economies. In Washington alone, bird and wildlife watching contributed $3.2 billion to the state’s economy in 2011. Among the birds that migrate from the Coastal Plain to Washington are snow geese, red-throated and pacific loons, western sandpipers, golden plovers and long-tailed ducks.
Finally, oil that is extracted from the Coastal Plain will likely be refined in Washington. Washington will face increased risks of a spill and potential worker safety hazards.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that the Trump Administration’s drilling plan violates several laws in a variety of ways.
For example, Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that the administration’s conduct violated NEPA multiple ways. Ferguson asserts the administration:
- Violated NEPA by failing to consider a reasonable alternative plan that minimizes the environmental impact to the Coastal Plain and is consistent with the conservation purposes of the Arctic Refuge.
- Violated NEPA by failing to adequately analyze the impacts its oil and gas leasing program will have on our climate.
- Violated NEPA by failing to adequately analyze the impacts its oil and gas leasing program will have on migratory birds. On Aug. 28, Ferguson led a broad coalition of states challenging the Trump Administration’s unlawful attempt to weaken NEPA.
Ferguson’s lawsuit challenging the Arctic Refuge drilling plan also asserts that the administration:
- Violated ANILCA and the Refuge Administration Act by authorizing a leasing program that does not fulfill and is incompatible with the conservation values for which the Arctic Refuge was created, thereby unlawfully disregarding the purposes governing management of the Arctic Refuge.
- Violated the Tax Act because its oil and gas drilling plan exceeds the surface development limitations Congress imposed in the act. While the act restricts surface development to 2,000 acres, the administration’s program narrowly defines what development qualifies under the limit, potentially excluding airstrips, gravel pits, gravel roads and barge landings from the surface development limit.
The agency actions also violated the APA by being arbitrary and capricious or unlawful. Ferguson has won many of his legal victories against the Trump Administration on the basis of APA challenges after federal judges ruled that President Trump and his administration’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious.” Agency actions are arbitrary and capricious if the agency failed to consider an important aspect of the problem or offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency.
The lawsuit seeks to block any exploration activities and to prevent the government from issuing oil and gas development leases in the Coastal Plain.
Assistant Attorneys General Aurora Janke and Cindy Chang with the Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Division are handling the case for Washington and leading the multi-state coalition.
Attorney General Ferguson created the Environmental Protection Division in 2016 to protect our environment and the safety and health of all Washingtonians.