Two lawsuits were filed against the Trump administration in a district court in Alaska on Monday, as a raft of environmental organizations challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) plan to open the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration.
In keeping with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law by President Trump in 2017, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed a decision approving the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program (pdf) in the ANWR on Aug. 17. The decision determines where any leases can be granted and under what conditions on the 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain, which makes up just over 8 percent of the total area of the 19.3 million-acre wildlife refuge.
However, representatives of the local Gwich’in tribe say that they consider the land to be sacred, and that the coastal plain is a calving ground for the herds of caribou that they rely on.
“BLM’s decision to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture, and our way of life,” said Gwich’in Steering Committee director Bernadette Demientieff in a statement. “We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years. We have listened and learned from our elders, and we know we must stand united to protect future generations, and that means going to court to protect the caribou herd and sacred lands.”
Thirteen environmental groups including the local Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society submitted one lawsuit, while the National Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth joined forces to file a second (pdf).
The groups claim that the Trump administration’s plan would cause significant and perhaps irreparable damage to a sensitive ecosystem far to the north of the Arctic Circle. They say that oil and gas industry development will degrade a pristine permafrost environment that is home to polar bears, caribou, and over 150 species of birds.
Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy sees the development as a step in the right direction, however. He says that responsible development in Alaska’s 1002 area could result in the recovery of up to 11.8 million barrels of oil, and that his state plays a critical role in American energy independence.
“The vision of Secretary Bernhardt and President Donald J. Trump will lead to the responsible development of Alaska’s abundant resources, create new jobs, support economic growth and prosperity, and most importantly, retain well into the future Alaska’s critical role in our Nation’s energy policy,” Dunleavy said in a statement.
Opposition to Oil and Gas
Environmental groups said they will continue to oppose the development.
“Drilling in the Arctic will irreparably scar one of the last remaining wild places on earth. Polar bears, porcupine caribou, musk oxen, and millions of migratory birds depend on this pristine habitat for their survival,” said president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O’Mara, in a statement. “By flagrantly disregarding the advice of the federal government’s top wildlife biologists and failing to follow numerous laws, the Trump administration has left us no choice but to file this lawsuit in solidarity with the Gwich’in Nation to stop this reckless plan to drill in the crown jewel of wildlife refuges.”
“This landscape is protected for a reason: for the Gwich’in people who depend on this land for life, for the tremendous biodiversity and wildlife that call the refuge home, and for all the Americans who do not live nearby, but cherish and value this iconic and pristine land and everything it offers us all, ” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be left untouched. This place is wild and remote and valuable beyond measure, and we cannot bear the risk of drilling there.”
Petroleum Industry Welcomes Plan
According to a statement from the American Petroleum Institute (API), which welcomed the decision approving the leasing program, oil and gas activity in the state provided almost 104,000 jobs in 2019, or almost one-third of the Alaskan workforce. According to the API, the industry has also contributed over $150 billion to Alaska in taxes and royalties.
Our industry will continue to build on its long track record of partnering with wildlife organizations & communities to implement strong environmental protections while leveraging new technology to safely & responsibly develop our energy resources. #ANWR https://t.co/jXyXt0tl6d pic.twitter.com/CAsd00BVd9
— American Petroleum Institute (@APIenergy) August 17, 2020
“This is a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development of a small part of Alaska’s 1002 Area,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
“New opportunity in the 1002 Area is needed both now, as Alaskans navigate incredibly challenging times, and well into the future as we seek a lasting economic foundation for our state,” she said in a statement. “Through this program, we will build on our already-strong record of an increasingly minimal footprint for responsible resource development.”
A spokesperson for the Interior Department, Conner Swanson, reiterated that the program was mandated by Congress. According to Swanson, the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program “leaves ninety-two percent of the refuge completely off limits to development. The Department’s decision regarding where and when development can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.