Gwich’in, environmental groups seek restraining order on ANWR oil leasing

Porcupine Caribou Herd (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Gwich’in Steering Committee and a dozen allied environmental groups filed a motion today in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction to halt the federal government’s plans to sell oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 6.

The motion argues that the federal government has rushed the review process for the upcoming sales, ignored environmental impacts and is opening the door for much more land than the 2,000 acres authorized by the 2017 federal tax act to be affected by drilling and exploration operations.

The filing is one of several seeking to put a halt to the ANWR lease sales, which are scheduled to take place before Trump leaves office.

“The outgoing administration’s attempt to sell-off sacred lands in the last throes of its term is an act of violence toward the Gwich’in people, our way of life, and our survival,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in a prepared statement. “Today we asked the court to stop this violation of human rights and desecration of sacred lands. Tomorrow, and the day after that, and an infinite number of days after that, we will fight as our ancestors did to protect the lands that nourish the Porcupine caribou herd and our people.”

The Gwich’in Steering Committee is a group formed in 1988 to represent Gwich-in villages in both Alaska and Canada opposed to drilling out of concerns to its impacts on the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

The motion also includes Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society-Yukon Chapter, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch. It was brought by Trustees for Alaska.

The lawsuit raises three main concerns with the Trump administration’s efforts to open ANWR to drilling: That the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of the plan, that BLM failed to consider an alternative for seismic exploration and that it violates the ANILCA’s definitions for ANWR.

On the first point, the suit notes that the BLM’s efforts would easily allow oil developers to skirt the 2,000-acre limit set by Congress in the 2017 federal tax act by not counting some facilities toward the cap and allowing for land to be reclaimed and new land to be put into production. All while never considering the environmental impact of the full scope of drilling under these allowances.

“BLM’s new interpretation opens the door to far more than 2,000 acres of development,” argues the filing. “However, BLM never took a hard look at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts to the Coastal Plain from its new interpretation. BLM’s interpretation in the final EIS was fundamental because it shaped the maximum development footprint and informed BLM’s development scenario and impacts analysis under each alternative. By altering this key interpretation in the ROD, after completion of the analysis, BLM violated NEPA by adopting a program without taking the required hard look, rendering the decision arbitrary and capricious.”

As for the plans’ violation of ANILCA, the motion argues that nothing in the 2017 tax act erased the protections and purposes set forward by the 1980 law and that issues like wildlife conservation, subsistence uses and water quality preservation cannot be ignored.

Though the BLM’s decision claims it complies with the purposes of ANILCA, the court filing argues “BLM did not acknowledge or explain how the leasing program was consistent with and protective of the Range purposes. Instead, BLM summarily stated in response to comments that the Range purposes no longer apply. This is contrary to Congress’ intent and BLM does not explain this conclusion.”

The suit also argues that there could be broad and irreparable harm to Gwich’in villages that rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, arguing that the blanket inclusion of ANWR’s coastal plain in the lease sale fails to recognize that there may be some areas more sensitive than others. Those lease sales, it notes, would offer the oil and gas companies broad rights to develop the land with relatively minimal oversight of their activities.

“Had BLM engaged in an adequate analysis, it might have chosen not to lease certain areas, adopted stricter mitigation measures, or closed areas to certain activities, like seismic exploration,” argues the suit. “Instead, lessees will obtain the right to undertake seismic operations, conduct exploratory drilling, build gravel mines, and construct roads, drilling pads, pipelines, and other infrastructure on the fragile arctic tundra, and to access leases. These activities will result in lasting and permanent damage to the Coastal Plain. Plaintiffs will be irreparably harmed by BLM’s issuance of the leases because the agency will have issued the leases without conducting the required analysis and ensuring necessary protections are in place, while foreclosing its ability to deny oil and gas activities.”

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