League of Conservation Voters v. Trump (Offshore Leasing Ban)
In 2015 and 2016, then president Barack Obama permanently banned oil and gas leasing in 98 percent of the U.S. Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic Ocean—roughly 128 million acres in all. Environmental and Alaska Native advocacy groups and communities all along the Eastern Seaboard cheered this as a major victory in the fight for ocean conservation and climate justice. The protected areas of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf are still undeveloped and undamaged by the oil industry, and they host rich webs of wildlife that are acutely vulnerable to oil spills and the impacts of climate change, including belugas, bowhead whales, and walruses. Exploration and drilling in these areas would harm marine mammals and threaten devastating spills, and these actions could have a severe climate impact, locking in fossil fuel reliance for decades to come when we need to be rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence.
And yet, in 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order attempting to undo Obama’s permanent protections and open these ocean areas to expedited oil and gas leasing. He claimed to be acting pursuant to Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), but in fact, Section 12(a) authorizes the President only to confer protections from leasing on areas of the Outer Continental Shelf—not to revoke them—effecting permanent bans unless and until Congress chooses to reverse them.
Attorneys from NRDC and Earthjustice filed suit in Alaska federal court, challenging Trump’s action on behalf of a broad coalition: League of Conservation Voters, NRDC, Sierra Club, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and the Wilderness Society.
In 2018, the district court upheld our right to sue Trump against a barrage of government objections. Then in 2019, the district court ruled that Trump’s executive order was unlawful, effectively reinstating Obama’s withdrawals and prohibiting leasing in these vulnerable areas. The Trump administration—supported by the State of Alaska and the American Petroleum Institute (API)—appealed the district court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit heard oral argument on June 5, 2020.
While we were awaiting the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Trump’s presidency ended. President Biden, on his first day in office, issued an executive order revoking Trump’s order in its entirety. All parties agreed that, because President Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic withdrawals are valid and in effect now regardless of the outcome of the appeals, the appeals are moot. The Ninth Circuit agreed and dismissed the appeals as moot on April 13, 2021. We welcomed the Ninth Circuit’s recognition that all 128 million acres of sensitive offshore areas protected by President Obama remain protected without the need for continued litigation.