Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are named in the suit, which alleges that the January 22 decision violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act among other laws, and that the agencies did not adequately assess the impacts from and alternatives to oil development in the reserve, which is located in America's western Arctic.
"The administration had a chance to strike a real balance between conservation and development in the western Arctic, but instead they took the most extreme option," said Deirdre McDonnell, attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau. "Instead of looking for the middle ground, they said, 'Let's drill it all: permanently protect nothing, make environmental rules even weaker, and put wildlife and people at risk.'"
The reserve contains the country's largest block of unprotected land, including areas of unsurpassed beauty and essential habitat that are vital for wildlife and for the people who depend on them for subsistence.
Conservationists challenge that the administration's decision to open so much of the reserve to oil and gas leasing ignores the need for permanent protection for sensitive wildlife habitat and makes misleading claims about the effects of oil and gas development.
The lawsuit highlights several violations of federal environmental law. The decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to provide adequate analysis of potential oil and gas leasing and development activities in the reserve, the impacts of these activities, or the proposed mitigation measures.
"The Department of the Interior was hoping that no one would look closely at what they're doing in the western Arctic," said Eleanor Huffines, the Wilderness Society's Alaska region director. "But when you read the details of their plans, all their claims about protecting special areas turn out to be smoke and mirrors. The 'special areas' don't get special treatment, and the 'strict environmental rules' are weaker than what we have now."
The agency failed to consider all reasonable alternatives to the lease-it-all course adopted by Secretary Norton. Audubon Alaska –- the National Audubon Society's Alaska State Office -– published a report outlining a wildlife habitat alternative in December 2002, which was supported by tens of thousands of public comments, but it was never taken seriously by the BLM.
"The Interior Department has ignored the public, the science, and the law in the rush to open every possible acre of the western Arctic to oil drilling," said Stan Senner. "Audubon's two-year study demonstrated that the reserve is large enough to balance oil drilling and wildlife protection, if you protect the right places. We're asking Interior to go back and try again. And, this time, to do it right."
The status of threatened bird species that could be adversely affected by oil and gas development is also ignored in the decision. The reserve contains extremely important breeding, molting, and migrating habitat for birds, including Steller's and spectacled eiders, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the rare yellow-billed loon.
"The USFWS has a clear obligation to ensure that their actions will not jeopardize the survival of these threatened birds," said Corrie Bosman, Alaska Program Director with the Center for Biological Diversity based in Sitka, Alaska. "By approving this project without carefully considering the full impacts of additional oil and gas leasing on the eiders and their habitat, the USFWS has violated the law and put the survival of these species at risk," Bosman said.
"The reserve is supposed to be our oil of last resort. We didn't tap it during World War II and we don't need to destroy its most important habitat areas now. This is just another oil patch on the road to progress by an administration bent on doing anything to delay the development of clean fuel sources," said Charles Clusen, Alaska project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The lawsuit was filed Monday, February 16, in federal district court in Juneau by Earthjustice on behalf of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.
For More Information, contact:
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
Eleanor Huffines, The Wilderness Society, (907) 272-9453
Stan Senner, National Audubon Society, 907-276-7034
Lexi Keogh, Alaska Wilderness League (202) 544-5205
Elliott Negin, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-2405