The US District Court for Alaska today issued a strongly worded decision that could save the internationally significant wildlife habitat around Teshekpuk Lake in the Northeast Planning Area of the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska (NPRA). The court found the government's environmental analysis violated federal environmental laws. Today's ruling strikes down the Interior Department's leasing plan for the area, and prohibits the BLM from proceeding with a planned sale of oil and gas leases on more than 400,000 acres around the lake. The lease sale was to have taken place September 27.
"This is a great victory for wildlife and the environment," said Deirdre McDonnell, attorney for the conservation groups that challenged the oil leasing plan. "The court's decision means that the administration will have to analyze the full environmental effect of its rush to lease the entire North Slope. We're hopeful that when the environmental costs are calculated fully, the administration will recognize that this area is just too vital to be sacrificed to the oil companies."
"Common sense and science have prevailed over the oil industry's campaign to drill no matter what the cost," said Stan Senner, Executive Director of Audubon Alaska. "Because of its critical importance for migratory birds and other wildlife, what happens at Teshekpuk Lake has ripple effects that reach across the world."
In today's decision, US District Judge James Singleton, Jr., found that the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the cumulative environmental impact 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, enjoins BLM's decision and remands the matter to the agency for further analysis.
"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 final decision, which was issued today.
Alaska Native communities near Teshekpuk Lake strongly opposed the federal plan to allow oil and gas drilling 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 the threat that drilling poses to nesting and molting grounds used by large populations of geese and other waterfowl and to caribou calving habitat. This summer, more than 100,000 citizens submitted comments to the Interior Department this summer demanding protection for vital habitat in the Teshekpuk Lake area, bringing the total number of pro-conservation comments to over 300,000 since 2005.
This area has enjoyed special protection from oil drilling since the Reagan administration. Despite pleas from Alaska Natives and the public at large to Interior Secretary Kempthorne to protect the most sensitive habitat around Teshekpuk Lake, BLM had scheduled a September 27 lease sale in the NPRA's Northeast Planning Area, including sensitive areas around the lake, the largest and most biologically productive lake on the North Slope.
"We're talking about an area that is the summer home for a tremendous number of North America's ducks and geese," said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "Given the oil companies' dismal environmental record on the North Slope of Alaska, it's just common sense that a place as unique and important as Teshekpuk Lake should be set aside and protected."
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
Stan Senner, Audubon Alaska, (907) 276-7034, cell: (907) 301-0864
Eleanor Huffines, The Wilderness Society, (907) 272-9453, (907) 232-0020
Pete Rafle, The Wilderness Society, (202) 429-2642
Elliott Negin, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-2405
Becky Wynn, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205