Court blocks drilling in Alaskan wetlands
Added under Environment
The Bush administration's plan to open more than 1.7 million acres of Alaskan wetlands to oil drilling hit a roadblock on Sept. 7 when a federal judge issued a preliminary decision temporarily blocking the leasing proposal. The judge criticized the federal government for failing to properly analyze the environmental impacts of drilling near Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake, which is considered one of the most important wildlife habitat areas in the Arctic.
The US Department of Interior (DOI) had planned later this month to sell leases covering more than 8 million acres within the northeast and northwest sections of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve (NRP-A), including the area around the lake.
The department estimates the area contains some 1.4 billion barrels of oil.
But the lake and wetlands around it provide important summer habitat for migratory birds from three continents and calving grounds for caribou.
Native Alaskan communities near the lake have voiced strong opposition to drilling around the lake, which is an important subsistence hunting and fishing ground.
The DOI contends its leasing plan contains adequate safeguards for the environment and for wildlife, but US District Judge James Singleton said the department's analysis of the probable environmental impacts was flawed.
Singleton specifically took issue with the DOI's decision to assess the impacts of leasing individual parcels while failing to consider the cumulative impacts of oil and gas drilling throughout the reserve on wildlife.
Federal officials have "violated the National Environmental Policy Act and abused their discretion," Singleton wrote.
Furthermore, he determined the department failed to review the plan's potential to adversely affect spectacled and Stellar's eiders–two species of sea ducks protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Allowing the lease sales would make it virtually impossible to take future actions to regulate oil exploration in the area in order to protect wildlife, Singleton ruled, and would "constitute an irreparable injury" to the environment.
The decision, if finalized, would force the DOI to revise the plan and cancel the lease sale.
Singleton told lawyers from both sides to respond to his preliminary ruling by Sept. 15. A final ruling is expected by the end of the month.
Officials at the DOI said they were reviewing the judge's order.
The ruling signals a potential major victory for environmentalists, who filed the suit to block the leasing plan.
"The court's preliminary decision gives a reprieve to some of the most sensitive habitat in Alaska," said Mike Daulton, the director of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society. "The judge has rightly expressed concern that the Bush administration's rush to drill does not account for the environmental damage that would happen in the most important wetlands in the Arctic."
The 23.5-million acre NPR-A was created in 1923 by President Warren Harding and is the single largest block of public land in the United States.
Few argue that a primary role for the area is energy development–it is the balance between wildlife protection and drilling that lies at the heart of the dispute. When Congress gave the DOI management responsibility for the reserve in 1976, it noted that the area is also vital to wildlife as well as to several thousand Native Alaskans who live in the area and depend on the land for subsistence.
Environmentalists note that Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding area have enjoyed special protection from oil drilling since the Reagan administration.
"We're talking about an area which is the summer home for much of North America's ducks and geese," said Earthjustice attorney Deirdre McDonnell. "It makes a lot of sense to protect this area from the damage crisscrossing it with pipelines everywhere will bring. The court is paying attention and we hope Secretary Kempthorne does too."
Sources: ENS Photo courtesy North Slope Science Initiative