PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Alaska’s icy northern seas are melting, with this year marking the third lowest on record for Arctic sea ice.
Meanwhile, the government asked a Ninth Circuit panel Tuesday to allow it to open those warming waters to more drilling, claiming oil and gas projects in the U.S. will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a permit in October 2018 allowing Hilcorp Alaska to build a nine-acre artificial island in the Beaufort Sea, off the northeast coast of Alaska. There, Hilcorp’s Liberty project would drill oil wells, build a production facility and construct an undersea pipeline to move an estimated 120 million barrels of oil over the next 25 years.
The Beaufort Sea hovered at 4 degrees Celsius above average this year, according to data from the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
Environmental groups challenged the permit in December, claiming the Trump administration skirted the law to approve the project.
In court filings, the government claimed that drilling for oil in one of North America’s most pristine natural reserves would be good for the environment, and rejecting the project would force consumers to buy imported oil from countries with weaker environmental protections than those imposed by the United States.
Justice Department attorney James Maysonett repeated that argument Tuesday for a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit at the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon.
“It may be counterintuitive, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational to say that if we don’t develop oil and gas resources in this country and we choose instead to rely on foreign and imported oil, we can stick our head in the sand and say that has no environmental effects,” Maysonett told the judges, all of whom were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Earthjustice attorney Rebecca Noblin, arguing for five environmental groups, said that line of reasoning ignores the bureau’s own prior analysis showing that one source of oil, if removed from the market, is not neatly replaced by the same volume of oil from another source.
In fact, Noblin said, the government has previously estimated that for every barrel of oil that remains in the ground, only about half a barrel is used in its place.
“The agency has chosen to rely on an assumption that defies basic economic principles,” she said. “We are looking at a decision that was irrational and that skews the analysis of environmental effects.”
The environmentalists also took issue with the government’s refusal to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the burning of oil and gas produced by the Liberty project and sold to foreign countries.
Maysonett said Tuesday that such a calculation would require the government to model the energy market of every country in the world – a herculean task not required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Let’s be clear – every drop of oil that comes out of the Liberty project is included in the greenhouse gas emissions estimated here,” Maysonett said. “What we didn’t look at is how the Liberty project will affect, very subtly, prices of oil all around the world, and then how that will affect greenhouse gas emissions abroad. To figure that out is a task BOEM and its trained economists concluded was just not feasible. NEPA doesn’t require the agency to guess. It allows the agency to limit its analysis.”
Noblin countered that the government is free to choose “any rational path” to assessing greenhouse gas emissions.
“But what it isn’t free to do is to knowingly omit critical information, and in so doing, underrepresent the environmental effects of this action,” she said. “It’s unlawful and it places the agency’s thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts.”
Tuesday’s panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Paez, a Bill Clinton appointee; Johnnie Rawlinson, another Clinton appointee; and Leslie Kobayashi, appointed by Barack Obama. It is unclear when they will issue a ruling.
In a separate project, the Trump administration announced Tuesday that it will hold lease sales in December on nearly 4 million acres in the western Arctic to open up previously protected areas for oil and gas drilling. The sales will offer fossil fuel companies the chance to drill in five “Special Areas” of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska – Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok River Uplands, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay. Those areas were protected because they are home to polar bear dens, calving grounds for caribou herds and wetlands, nesting and breeding areas for millions of birds, fish and mammals.
“This is one of several actions we are taking to further expand energy development in Alaska,” Chad Padgett, Alaska state director for the Bureau of Land Management, said in a statement. “With advancements in drilling technology, it was prudent to develop a new plan that provides for greater economic development of our resources while still providing protections for important resources, such as subsistence uses.”