A federal judge ruled Friday that no drilling or related activity would be permitted in the northwest portion of the western Arctic until a lawsuit by environmentalists is resolved, probably later this year. A June 2 lease sale will continue as planned, but those who win leases must wait until the court resolves environmentalists’ concerns.
Representing seven environmental groups, Earthjustice asked Judge James Singleton for a preliminary injunction to block the lease sale until the court could review the groups’ challenge. The groups contend that the Bureau of Land Management broke the law when it failed to thoroughly analyze the effects of drilling on wildlife and habitat and when it refused to consider a balanced development alternative. The portions of the reserve at risk provide habitat to globally significant migratory bird populations, two important caribou herds, marine mammals, and threatened Steller’s and spectacled eiders, as well as the rare yellow-billed loon.
Although Earthjustice and its clients had hoped the court would stop the lease sale altogether, Earthjustice attorney Deirdre McDonnell was pleased with the judge’s order. “We’re happy that Judge Singleton recognizes that there are serious legal issues raised by our challenge.”
The National Audubon Society, one of the plaintiffs in the case, identified a number of critical bird and wildlife habitat areas in the reserve and recommended an alternative to the administration that would balance protection of key habitat with oil leasing. Audubon estimates that if the administration implemented all of Audubon’s recommendations, 65 percent of the “high oil potential” lands would still be available for leasing. But the Bush administration has ignored Audubon’s findings as well as other scientific data regarding sensitive parts of the reserve and instead is proceeding with plans to make the entire northwest section available for oil leasing.
“Before the agency gives oil companies the right to drill, it needs to look at the full impacts of oil development and consider reasonable alternatives,” said McDonnell. “Here the Interior Department did neither, but decided to lease 100 percent of the 8.8 million acre planning area. We’re asking the court to tell the agency to try again and consider a more balanced approach.”
Beyond these efforts to offer leases throughout the reserve, since 2001 the Bush administration has pushed relentlessly to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, and has opened nearly 100 percent of the Beaufort Sea to offshore drilling. A March 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that drilling on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay has damaged the air, water, land, wildlife, and people in America’s Arctic.