The headlong rush to open the Northwest Planning Area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, located in America's western Arctic, to oil and gas drilling has resulted in leasing plans that fail to protect key wildlife habitat, according to scientists and conservation advocates. In response, seven conservation groups today asked a federal court to declare a temporary "time out" to give the court time to review their challenge to the US Interior Department's leasing plans before holding a lease sale, now scheduled for June.
The request for preliminary injunction comes as part of a lawsuit filed in February that challenges the government's failure to meet the law's requirement to consider reasonable middle ground alternatives that would allow for oil development while protecting wildlife. The lawsuit also asserts the agency failed to assess fully the potential impact of oil and gas development activities on wildlife and the environment in the reserve. The groups filed today's preliminary injunction motion so that their claims can be considered before leasing occurs.
The portions of the reserve at risk provide habitat to globally significant migratory bird populations, two important caribou herds, marine mammals, and threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders, as well as the rare yellow-billed loon.
"Before the agency gives oil companies the right to drill, it needs to look at the full impacts of oil development and consider reasonable alternatives," said Deirdre McDonnell, an attorney with Earthjustice in Juneau. "Here the Interior Department did neither, but decided to lease 100 percent of the 8.8 million acre planning area. We're asking the court to tell the agency to try again and consider a more balanced approach."
The National Audubon Society, one of the plaintiffs in the case, identified a number of critical bird and wildlife habitat areas in the reserve and determined that full wildlife protection would mean designating less than a quarter of the 8.8 million acres of the Northwest Planning Area as no-lease zones. Audubon estimates that if the administration implemented all of Audubon's recommendations, 65 percent of the "high oil potential" lands would still be available for leasing. But the Bush administration has ignored Audubon's findings as well as other scientific data regarding sensitive parts of the reserve and instead is proceeding with plans to develop the entire northwest section for oil.
"We don't oppose oil drilling in the reserve," said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon's Alaska Chapter. "Most Americans want to see the government strike a balance between drilling and conservation, especially in wild and fragile places like America's Arctic. In this case, the Bureau of Land Management refused to look at a reasonable alternative like the one we suggested that would allow oil development and protect wildlife – and that violates the law."
According to a Federal Register notice published Tuesday, drilling leases will go on sale June 2. The sale could lease much of the Northwest Planning Area of the reserve. In addition, the Bush administration is expected to announce on May 9 that it is soliciting public comment on a proposal to overturn protections for wildlife habitat in the reserve's northeast area – including in areas that were set aside for wildlife by Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt.
Beyond these efforts to offer leases throughout the reserve, since 2001 the Bush administration has pushed relentlessly to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, and has opened nearly 100 percent of the Beaufort Sea to offshore drilling. A March 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that drilling on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay has irrevocably damaged the air, water, land, wildlife and people in America's Arctic.
"The rush to industrialize this incomparable wilderness makes no sense given that the reserve contains relatively little oil," said Charles Clusen, Alaska Project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We should 'drill in Detroit' by increasing the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks, not ruin one of our last pristine wilderness areas."
"The administration is moving at an unprecedented pace to open all of America's Arctic to oil and gas drilling," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "In the process everything else is getting shoved aside. They are taking the most extreme approach – they have demonstrated no interest in weighing wildlife concerns against the costs and benefits of oil and gas production. Where's the balance in that?"
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, 907-586-2751
Stan Senner, Audubon Alaska, 907-276-7034
Chuck Clusen, NRDC, 202-289-2412
Sara Chappell, Sierra Club, 907-766-3204
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