National and community-based environmental groups filed a legal challenge today to stop the Department of Interior’s lease sale in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Lease Sale 258, scheduled for Dec. 30, would auction off nearly a million acres of federal waters in Southcentral Alaska, opening the door to decades of future oil-and-gas drilling. The Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed the lawsuit together with Earthjustice, which represents Cook Inletkeeper, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, and Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
Cook Inlet is home to beluga whales and sea otters protected under the Endangered Species Act. It also supports thriving subsistence, commercial, and recreational fisheries and a multi-faceted tourist industry, fed by visitors from around the world who are drawn by the region’s unparalleled natural beauty. The Inlet is also essential for Alaska Native communities, who have stewarded these lands and waters for millennia. Alaska, meanwhile, is experiencing more extreme consequences of climate change than the continental United States. Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, and fishery collapse are all ramifications of the worsening global climate crisis, which will only intensify with new oil-and-gas drilling operations.
Nor is the Cook Inlet region any stranger to the devastation that occurs with a catastrophic oil spill, as the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster took place in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and affected the waters of Cook Inlet and its communities more than 30 years ago. The government’s environmental analysis predicts a 1 in 5 chance of a large oil spill occurring from a Cook Inlet lease sale.
Interior canceled the sale last May, but then announced it would move ahead in August after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Though that legislation spurred unprecedented efforts to address climate change, it included a provision reviving this lease sale and mandating that it happen before the end of the year. Despite this requirement, Interior retains full discretion as to how to conduct the sale.
Interior has the discretion to:
- restrict the amount of offshore acreage put up for lease,
- limit allowable activity on leased acreage
- establish timetables for drilling activity on a leased area,
- take other measures to limit harm.
But, Interior has not taken steps to limit oil-and-gas drilling and has rejected alternatives that would have resulted in a much smaller lease area. Numerous scientific analyses have determined that the U.S. will not successfully slash greenhouse-gas emissions to meet its own established climate targets if it continues green-lighting new onshore and offshore oil-and-gas development on federal lands and waters.
Today’s lawsuit argues that approval of the Cook Inlet lease sale violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and should be vacated. Even under the new IRA requirements, Interior must nevertheless adhere to NEPA’s requirements for public process when considering the leasing decision. The permitting agency violated NEPA by failing to meaningfully account for climate impacts or consider alternatives that would have resulted in less harm to the climate, marine life, and surrounding communities. Interior has also fallen short on keeping the public adequately informed, by failing to fully respond to public comments.
Partnering organizations released the following statements as they went to court to challenge this lease sale:
“Our coastal communities have stood up repeatedly to say ‘no’ to oil and gas leasing in Lower Cook Inlet. This is our home, not a sacrifice zone,” said Taylor Kendal Smith, communications director for Cook Inletkeeper. “There would be little to gain in terms of affordable energy and much to lose in habitat, tourism, fisheries, and beauty. Lower Cook Inlet is worth far more — both in economic and cultural senses of value — intact and protected than with oil platforms and pipelines.”
“Here in Lower Cook Inlet, we need to do everything we can to safeguard our way of life against the threats of oil and gas development. We need protection of our fish and fisheries; we need protection of the ecological integrity of our ocean; we need the hope provided by renewable energy investment,” said Penelope Haas, vice-president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. “Oil and gas are not the future. They are a threat to our future.”
“We are outraged that the Biden administration is moving ahead with a lease sale in Cook Inlet in the midst of the climate crisis and knowing the long-term harm that oil and gas drilling will cause to this precious marine environment and our coastal communities,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “This is the time for restoration and renewal, and for a swift transition to renewable energy. Given the history of the oil corporations’ illegal dumping of toxic waste, spills, and chronic damage, we cannot allow this lease sale to proceed. We must protect our fisheries, wildlife, and health of our communities.”
“The agency failed to look carefully at how the lease sale will affect this important ecosystem, and it failed to consider less harmful options,” said Julia Forgie, attorney for NRDC. “Interior’s failure to follow NEPA threatens the critically endangered beluga whale, local fisheries, and the residents of Cook Inlet. The agency had the discretion to put fewer acres up for lease, to limit activity on those acres and to set deadlines for drilling, but did none of those things here.”
“The Biden administration could have done so much more to limit the damage of the Inflation Reduction Act’s lease sale provision in Cook Inlet. Instead, in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis, it’s offering a huge swath of the ocean, nearly a million acres, to fossil fuel bidders,” said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office. “This sale threatens irreplaceable waters and wildlife with oil spills and takes us backward on addressing the climate crisis. We’re going to court to force the administration to comply with our bedrock environmental laws, reconsider this mistake, and act consistently with its climate and biodiversity commitments. The Inflation Reduction Act should not prevent the administration from making the right choices to protect future generations.”
“The unnecessary destruction of precious ocean habitat from oil and gas drilling has to stop,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our climate can’t take it, and neither can the already-endangered Cook Inlet belugas and other species that will suffer more oil spills and noisy vessel traffic if this sale goes forward. Cook Inlet’s communities deserve better, and Interior needs to do its job as a public agency and protect this country’s irreplaceable public lands and waters.”