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Lawsuit Aims to Block Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Oil and gas leasing would cause irreparable harm to wildlife, tundra, and climate
An aerial view of a braided river in the Arctic Refuge.

The unspoiled 19 million acres of tundra, rivers and mountains of the Arctic Refuge shelter migratory birds from all 50 states and six continents each summer. To the Gwich’in people of northeast Alaska, this is sacred ground.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
August 24, 2020
Anchorage, AK —

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the Trump administration’s decision to allow oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management’s plan for drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge would cause irreparable damage to one of the world’s most important wild places and takes America in exactly the wrong direction on combating climate change, the suit says.

The lawsuit, filed by the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Friends of the Earth, represented by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice and NRDC, is one of several legal actions launched in response to the oil and gas drilling plan. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, a voice for indigenous traditional hunting communities, also filed suit to challenge the oil and gas development plan. Gwich’in people revere the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain as a sacred place because it serves as calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, animals that are essential for food and cultural tradition in Gwich’in villages. 

The Trump administration’s plan to sacrifice this cherished place for oil and gas development comes at a time of rising concerns about the climate crisis, and as energy markets contend with an oil glut due to a global pandemic. The administration selected an alternative that maximizes the area to be handed over to the fossil fuel industry. Its flawed analysis ignores the irreversible harm oil and gas development will bring to one of the world’s most significant wildlife habitats, dealing a blow to species such as polar bears, caribou, and millions of migratory birds. The final Environmental Impact Statement even acknowledged that some bird species may go extinct.

The Bureau of Land Management also downplayed how development would damage the tundra and permafrost that support the Arctic ecosystem and the consequences on the people who recreate, hunt, and otherwise use the Arctic Refuge. And although temperatures are rising in the Arctic at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, federal approval for oil and gas drilling also under-reported leasing’s climate change implications. 

The lawsuit calls for the court to block the leasing program because its approval ignored federal law, violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The program maximizes oil development at the expense of all other protected values in the Refuge, and ignores important requirements designed to avoid such damage.

Co-plaintiffs and attorneys engaged in this lawsuit issued the following statements:

“Birds can’t vote and they can’t file a lawsuit — but we can. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protect America’s bird nursery from drilling,” said David Yarnold (@david_yarnold), president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “On the darkest days I like to think about the perseverance of the Tundra Swan that travel in family groups from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over three thousand miles to spend their winter with us on the Potomac and the Chesapeake. They never give up and neither do we — if we don’t look out for them and the 200 other bird species that depend on the Refuge — who will?”

“Developing Alaska’s last wild places would be a death sentence for polar bears and other threatened Arctic species. The oil industry just doesn’t belong in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s obscene that the Trump administration and its industrial allies targeted this special place, and we need the courts to stop them. Preventing climate chaos requires protecting our final frontiers.”

“Trump and his grifter administration are determined to hand our most precious wild spaces over to corporate polluters,” said Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to destructive drilling, mining and extraction will irreversibly harm the land and surrounding communities and exacerbate the climate crisis. The Trump administration is opening the doors of this cherished place to the oil and gas industry, and we need the courts to intervene. Protecting our climate means we must keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

“This plan to expose the Arctic Refuge to the hazard and harm of drilling violates so many laws, it’s hard to even list them all,” said Garett Rose, attorney for the Alaska project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Here’s the administration, ready to violate an area sacred to the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people. It’s coming for baby polar bears! It’s coming for porcupine caribou, peregrine falcons, and will run roughshod over sensitive tundra, wetlands, and foothills. We are simply not going to let polluters win this fight.”

“Earthjustice has been defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from fossil fuel development since the 1980s. Today we’re taking action to stop an administration that’s run roughshod over laws designed to protect this irreplaceable landscape,” said Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. “The Trump administration’s aggressive oil-drilling scheme ignores the science of climate change. It violates the rights of Indigenous people who hold the Refuge to be sacred, robs the millions of Americans of who cherish the unspoiled beauty of this public-lands treasure, and threatens to harm iconic wildlife like endangered polar bears whose habitat is dwindling due to vanishing sea ice. Not only is the plan to ruin this place for the profit of a dead-end industry completely heartless and short-sighted, it is also unlawful — and our court battle to defend the Refuge begins today.”

Contacts

Rebecca Bowe, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2093

Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7137

Matt Smelser, National Audubon Society, (202) 516-5593

Lisa Hardaway, Audubon, (973) 902-9298

Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518