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Scott Martelle, a native of Maine, is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
Finishing a task that a Republican-controlled Congress gave it three years ago, the Trump administration has finalized plans for new oil and gas leases in one of the most pristine stretches of the world: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s a manifestly bad idea that Congress was wrong to slip into the 2017 budget bill, and in its rush to craft the new rules the administration has likely opened a door for legal challenges. But Congress should not defer to the courts on this — it must fix the problem it created.
Congress approved offering the leases — ending more than 35 years of protections — not in response to the will of the people but in defiance of public sentiment. Only 35 percent of Americans supported drilling in ANWR. About the only people supporting the notion are some oil- and gas-industry firms and their political supporters — mainly Alaska Republicans.
And Trump, whose retrograde enthusiasm for burning ever more fossil fuels endangers the health of the planet and its suitability for human habitation.
As The Times’ editorial board wrote last year, “proponents note that the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act designated a section known as the 1002 area as a site for future drilling should Congress approve it. But that’s a far cry from saying it must be open for drilling, and the balance of interests tilts decidedly toward leaving the region alone.”
Yet the Bureau of Land Management ruled that draft plans calling for constructing well pads, up to four airstrips, 175 miles of roads and a pipeline wouldn’t pose an undue threat to the more than 270 different species that live in the region, including polar bears and migrating caribou herds.
If there’s any good news here, it’s that current market forces weigh against the industry trying to sink new wells in such an expensive and inhospitable place, and that consumer pressure against such moves will be considerable. Even major banks are balking at financing such projects.
Plus, the environmentalists’ legal challenges may prove insurmountable.
David J. Hayes, a former Interior Department deputy secretary in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told the Washington Post the Trump administration’s environmental review centered on establishing the drill pads and did not consider the broader impacts from expanded drilling and pipeline operations, as the law requires.
“You can’t just take the first step of the program,” Hayes said. “I think that statutory language is a real tripwire for these guys.”
Given all that uncertainty, it wouldn’t be surprising to see oil and gas companies decline to bid on leases they may never get to exercise.
No one knows whether Trump’s toxicity might finally catch up with him in the November election and lead to a change in administrations — and perhaps a change in control of the Senate. If it does, Congress can undo several months’ worth of regulatory actions through the Congressional Review Act — just as it did in early 2017 to undo a number of late-term Obama regulatory changes.
But as I noted earlier, Congress created this problem, and it can fix it by withdrawing its permission to sell the leases in the first place. The nation, and the world, needs to move away from burning fossil fuels if we are to stand any chance of limiting damage from global warming, which (as we learned just last week) has likely pushed Greenland’s massive ice sheet past the tipping point, leading ultimately to its disappearance — and eventually adding 23 feet to current sea levels.
The government needs to pursue policies exactly opposite of those pushed by Trump. Which means we desperately need a change in government.