In the decision released today, US District Judge James Singleton, Jr. stated that the Department of Interior failed to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of widespread oil and gas drilling in the NPRA, a key point in conservation groups' arguments against the plan to lease the area around Teshekpuk Lake, and signaled that he intends to overrule the Department's plans for leasing the area.
"Having failed to fully consider the cumulative effects of the proposed development in NE [Northeast planning area of the] NPRA and the previously proposed action in the NWPA [Northwest NPRA planning area], Defendants have violated NEPA and abused their discretion," writes Judge Singleton in the preliminary decision, which was made public today.
"This is great news," said Stan Senner, Executive Director of Audubon Alaska. "This should send a strong signal to Interior Secretary Kempthorne that he ought to listen to the people of the North Slope and the thousands of others who have spoken out against the headlong rush to turn the wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake into an industrial oil field."
Alaska Native communities near the lake have voiced strong opposition to a federal plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the area around the lake, which is an important subsistence hunting and fishing ground. They have been joined by scientists, sportsmen's groups, other conservationists, and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens who have voiced their concerns about potential impacts to nesting and molting grounds used by large populations of geese and other waterfowl.
"In light of the string of disasters in the Prudhoe Bay field this year, I'd expect to hear more concern about protecting this world-class wildlife area," North Slope Mayor Edward S. Itta observed in a news release issued earlier this week. "Instead, there seems to be less concern on the part of the Bush administration."
Despite Secretary Kempthorne hearing repeated concerns on this issue from Alaska natives and the public, the Bureau of Land Management has scheduled a September 27 lease sale in the northeast planning area of NPR-A, including sensitive areas around Teshekpuk Lake, the largest and most biologically productive lake on the North Slope. The lake and the surrounding area have enjoyed special protection from oil drilling since the Reagan administration.
"We're talking about an area which is the summer home for much of North America's ducks and geese," said Earthjustice attorney Deirdre McDonnell. "It makes a lot of sense to protect this area from the damage crisscrossing it with pipelines everywhere will bring. The court is paying attention and we hope Secretary Kempthorne does too."
Judge Singleton has allowed for additional arguments from both sides, and is expected to issue a final ruling by the end of the month.