480 U. S. 531
March 24, 1987
The Secretary of the Interior permitted oil companies to search for oil in the Bering Sea next to Alaska. The Native village of Gambell objected, claiming that this permit would interfere with its statutory hunting and fishing rights in the ANILCA law. Despite a report by the Secretary showing that these rights would not be burdened, a Court of Appeals granted a preliminary injunction against the oil companies, arguing that some technical requirements of ANILCA had still been violated, and that government interest in preserving Native rights outweighed the interest in energy independence.
Unanimously, the Supreme Court vacated the preliminary injunction. Writing for the Court, White explained that preliminary injunctions should not be issued for mere technical violations of a law, especially when no evidence existed that the oil exploration would actually jeopardize the subsistence rights of Indians. Thus, there was no irreparable harm which warranted an injunction. White also held that ANILCA did not even apply in this case because its reach was strictly limited to the legal boundaries of the State of Alaska. This was proved by plain language, statutory construction canons, and legislative history. The location of the oil exploration was in waters not under the state’s legal jurisdiction.
Stevens, joined by Scalia, wrote to posit that ANILCA’s geographic reach completely disposed of the case. Accordingly, they did not join the section of the Court’s opinion about the standards for a preliminary injunction. Reading this case, it seems amazing that energy exploration ever happens at all. Apart from frivolous legal challenges like the Gambell case, oil companies have to make it through a red tape obstacle course of doom, as footnote 5 documents. Sadly, that obstacle course has only become more difficult since 1987 (see the Keystone pipeline nonsense).