A coalition of national and Alaskan environmental organizations today filed suit in federal district court against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to challenge the imminent leasing of more than four million acres of federal land in northwestern Alaska for oil and gas development. The Interior Department released a final environmental impact statement in August with a “preferred alternative” that would make available for leasing a portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a vast, unspoiled wild area in America’s Arctic that is home to an astounding variety of wildlife.
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 Legal Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Leasing opponents cite several arguments in support of their position:
· The NPR-A is an ecologically rich wild area that provides essential wildlife habitat for a variety of species, including large caribou herds, polar bears, brown bears, wolves, moose and muskoxen. It also provides critical nesting and molting habitat for numerous species of geese and is summer home to millions of migratory birds. In addition, many Native Alaskans depend on caribou, geese, and other species from the area in question for their subsistence needs.
· No adequate assessment of the likely impacts of oil and gas development on the NPR-A’s resources has been completed, nor has an adequate cumulative assessment been conducted on the impacts of oil exploration, development and drilling activities throughout the region.
· None of the alternatives proposed by the Department provides permanent or even adequate protection for the unique resources and values of Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River, designated by the Secretary in 1977 as Special Areas warranting “maximum protection.” Several other areas in the NPR-A are still being studied, each of which may also exhibit values sufficient to warrant designation as Special Areas and some form of permanent protection. Leasing should not proceed without appropriate permanent protection in place.
· The NPR-A was set aside for use in times of national need. Oil prices have reached record lows and supplies are abundant. The Secretary has not demonstrated a need to tap into the nation’s oil reserves. Ravaging the Arctic for oil when there is no need and without a national energy policy in place is both short-sighted and wrong.
Eric Jorgensen, attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, summed it up: “This area is a tremendous wildlife and wilderness resource for the American people. We should not rush to issue oil leases until we can ensure its unique values are protected.
Detailed background information is obtainable by fax from Brian Smith, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund: call 415-627-6700 or on the Internet at http://aurora.ak.blm.gov/npra/