Plan to drill in Alaska’s wildlife refuge meets first legal challenge

Jennifer A. Dlouhy August 24, 2020

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) --Environmentalists and Alaska natives are challenging the Trump administration’s decision to sell drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, arguing the government gave short shrift to the impact on polar bears and the region’s other wildlife.

The groups are filing a pair of lawsuits Monday in a U.S. district court in Alaska, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity before a formal announcement. The move sets up an election-year battle over the controversial plan, even as the Interior Department prepares for a possible auction.

The challengers include environmental groups and the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an organization representing indigenous people in Alaska and Canada who subsist on the Porcupine Caribou herd that migrates through the refuge. The Gwich’in call the caribou calving grounds on the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins.”

“The fight is not over,” the committee’s executive director, Bernadette Demientieff, vowed last week after the Interior Department authorized an expansive oil leasing plan. “Our ways of life, our food security and our identity is not up for negotiation.”

The groups argue the Interior Department glossed over the potential negative effects of oil development in the Arctic refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain and didn’t sufficiently consider alternatives that would minimize the risks.

Congress in 2017 passed a law requiring two auctions of at least 400,000 acres worth of oil leases in the coastal plain before Dec. 22, 2024. But the Interior Department last week went further by authorizing leasing across the entire coastal plain. The agency rejected narrower alternatives that would make less acreage available, with more restrictions on development.

The coastal plain is estimated to hold as much as 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude, yet environmentalists argue tapping that oil imperils one of the country’s last truly wild places and the Arctic foxes, polar bears, caribou and migratory birds that thrive in it.

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