In 1998, the Department of the Interior leased the majority of a 4.6 million acre area in the Northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, also known as the Western Arctic. Earthjustice, on behalf of a coalition of eight national and Alaska conservation groups, filed suit challenging the government's failure to perform a rigorous assessment of the cumulative environmental impacts of oil and gas development, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Earthjustice lawsuit also argues that NEPA provisions requiring identification of site-specific impacts of oil development on these public lands haven't been met. This case is currently pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
A recent study commissioned by Congress, and released in March 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences, supports the lawsuit's claim that oil development in the Arctic is proceeding haphazardly, without a prior assessment of cumulative impacts. The past 35 years of oil development on Alaska's North Slope have had serious environmental impacts on the wildlife, vegetation, and subsistence activities, the NAS report found, reinforcing the conservationists' position that the ecological integrity of the North Slope is at serious risk from piecemeal and damaging development. The NAS report also confirms the conservationists' stance that the North Slope's most fragile, ecologically-rich areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, should be off limits to oil development. .
The NAS study notes that oil development has already caused serious impact to the fragile arctic environment. Habitat for migratory birds has been degraded, and displaced caribou from the Central Arctic Herd have suffered a reduction of reproductive output. The study found that there is no scientific support for the presumed minimal environmental impacts of actions such as allowing oil companies to withdraw up to 15% of the water from lakes with over-wintering fish. Similarly, current regulations on minimum snow depth and frost requirements for energy industry seismic activities are not supported by scientific evidence, and appear to be insufficient for protecting the delicate tundra.
Despite the failure to identify areas needing permanent protection - and the lack of scientific evidence that current requirements are sufficient to protect the environment - the Bush Administration is rushing to approve leasing in an additional eight million acre area of the Western Arctic.
"Although conservation groups are not opposed to all drilling in the Western Arctic, development there should proceed only after the Department of Interior identifies key wildlife, wilderness, and subsistence resources, and incorporates measures to protect those resources," said Earthjustice attorney Deirdre McDonnell. "If they don't, Americans won't stand idly by while this administration violates environmental laws for the sake of its corporate friends."
"We're in court right now pointing out the shortcomings of the recent efforts to promote oil development in the Western Arctic," said Earthjustice attorney Eric Jorgensen. "The Bush administration is about to compound the problem and put the rest of the Western Arctic in the hands of the oil companies."
At 23.5 million acres, the Western Arctic is a critical component of the arctic ecosystem. The area is ecologically rich and provides essential wildlife habitat for Alaska's largest caribou herd, polar bears, brown bears, wolves, moose and musk oxen. It also provides critical nesting and molting habitat for numerous species of geese and is summer home to millions of migratory birds including endangered species. It's one of the only places in North America where rare white Beluga whales congregate annually to reproduce. Inupiat Eskimo villages depend on the caribou, geese, and other species from the Reserve for their subsistence needs.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Center for the Environment, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. These groups are jointly represented by attorneys from Trustees for Alaska, Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council.