The Bush administration is faced with reworking its proposal to lease more than 1 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska after a judge on Thursday temporarily halted the project in a lawsuit by environmentalists.
Nearly 13 million acres of the reserve in northern Alaska are available for lease sale or have been sold to oil companies, most notably ConocoPhillips. The company hopes to augment waning crude stocks in the Prudhoe Bay fields east of the NPR-A.
Environmentalists filed the lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, the state of Alaska and oil companies in hopes of cordoning off about 600,000 acres of the 23-million acre reserve from more exploratory drilling. The government had planned to open bids on Sept. 27 for about 1.7 million acres, which encompass the area targeted by environmentalists.
ConocoPhillips has its eye on the contested area, which holds a potential 2 billion barrels of oil beneath the permafrost near Lake Teshekpuk.
The order, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, said the government had not adequately considered the cumulative environmental effects of the lease sales in the eastern and western sections of the reserve.
Legal violation cited
Environmental impact statements addressed the effects of leasing individual parcels, but those reports were too narrow in scope because they did not consider how leasing in the northeastern part of the reserve would affect land and wildlife in the northwestern section, according to the judge's order.
U.S. District Judge James Singleton chastised the defendants for the oversight, writing that they “violated the National Environmental Protection Act.”
The Department of the Interior and ConocoPhillips did not immediately return messages left late Thursday.
Singleton is expected to make a final ruling the last week of September, said Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska project for the Natural Resources Defense Council based in Washington, D.C., one of the plaintiffs.
The government set aside the NPR-A in 1923 for energy development.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, whose department is in charge of the lease sale, flew over the lake area last week. He said afterward that he was convinced a restricted drilling plan could accommodate energy development and wildlife protection.
The lease plan would allow for caribou migration by banning some areas to drilling and set up buffers to protect geese molting areas, Henri Bisson, the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska director, has said.
What activists want
Environmental groups said they only want to preserve the most sensitive fractions of land and don’t aim to block exploration in the arctic oil reserve.
“Kempthorne can go ahead with the lease sale of the northwest and the rest of the northeast sections, but he has to leave this part alone,” Clusen said. “We’re not asking to shut everything down, we’re just going after the most valuable wildlife area.”
Other plaintiffs are the National Audubon Society, the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
Primary defendants include the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.