Court Blocks Drilling in Alaskan Wetlands

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, September 8, 2006 (ENS) - The Bush administration's plan to open more than 1.7 million acres of Alaska wetlands to oil drilling hit a roadblock Thursday 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 U.S. Interior Department 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.

Alaska Native communities near the lake have voiced strong opposition to drilling around the lake, which is an important subsistence hunting and fishing ground.

lake

For numerous species of wildlife, the network of coastal lagoons, deep-water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows and river deltas of the Teshekpuk Lake area are vital habitat. (Photo courtesy BLM)
The Interior Department contends its leasing plan contains adequate safeguards for the environment and for wildlife, but U.S. District Judge James Singleton said the department's analysis of the probable environmental impacts was flawed.

Singleton specifically took issue with the Interior Department'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 Interior Department to revise the plan and cancel the lease sale.

Singleton told lawyers from both sides to respond to his preliminary ruling by September 15. A final ruling is expected by the end of the month.

Officials at the Interior Department said they were reviewing the judge's order.

lake

The endangered spectacled eider, a large sea duck, is one of many wildlife species that inhabits the Teshekpuk area. (Photo courtesy FWS)
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 Interior Department management responsibility for the reserve in 1976, it noted that the area is also vital to wildlife as well as to several thousand Alaska Natives 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."