By Jennifer A. Dlouhy
The groups said they filed a pair of lawsuits Monday in a U.S. district court in Alaska, setting up an election-year battle over the controversial plan, even as the Interior Department prepares for a possible auction.
One of the challenges is led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an organization representing indigenous people who don’t live in the refuge but subsist on the Porcupine Caribou herd that migrates through it. The Gwich’in call the caribou calving grounds on the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins.”
The Interior Department’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,” the committee’s executive director, Bernadette Demientieff, said Monday. “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.”
Other challengers include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Wilderness League and The Wilderness Society.
The groups argue the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management violated federal law by glossing over the potential negative effects of oil development in the Arctic refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain and failing to sufficiently consider alternatives that would minimize the risks. They also accuse Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service of violating the Endangered Species Act and administrative law by determining the leasing program wouldn’t jeopardize polar bears or their critical habitat.
“This is a congressionally mandated energy development program that leaves 92% of the refuge completely off-limits to development,” the Interior Department said in an emailed statement. “The department’s decision regarding where and when development can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears.”
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.
The cases are Gwich’in Steering Committee v. David Bernhardt and National Audubon Society v. David Bernhardt, both U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska (Anchorage).