Ninth Circuit approves drilling within Alaska reserve


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 9 issued a ruling in favor of the US government, allowing oil drilling to proceed in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). The court rejected a claim by environmental groups that a 2012 impact statement prepared for earlier drilling within the NPRA was inadequate to cover new planned operations by oil companies elsewhere in the reserve, a critical caribou habitat.

The reserve was first designated a source of oil for the Navy in 1923, and in 1976 management of the land was turned over to the US Department of the Interior, with a mandate to protect the area’s wildlife. The NPRA is home to millions of migratory birds, beluga whales, and caribou, which are an important source of food for indigenous peoples.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2012 issued a combined Integrated Activity Plan (IAP) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding management of the land and its resources. In 2016 ConocoPhillips found a new source of oil in the reserve that could produce 130,000 barrels per day. The company currently runs one drilling operation within the reserve, is preparing a second operation, and has drawn up plans for a third.

A coalition of organizations including the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club brought suit in district court, claiming that the discovery required that the BLM perform a new site-specific analysis to consider the harm caused by the new project. The district court in 2018 issued a summary judgment in favor of the government.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s judgment in its¬†ruling. It held that the government can issue a single document that serves as both an overall management plan for the land as well as a site-specific analysis of individual projects within the land, and that the 2012 document fulfilled the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirement of preparing an EIS for lease sales, despite the fact that the study was completed four years prior to the new oil discovery.

From Jurist, July 11. Used with permission.

Note: The NPRA is across Prudhoe Bay from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which was opened to oil drilling by Congress in 2017, following four decades of contestation.

Photo: US Geological Survey via Flickr

  1. Trump admin finalizes plan to open ANWR to oil drilling

    The Trump administration on Aug. 17 finalized its plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploitation, a move that overturns six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States. The plan calls for opening 1.5 million acros of the 19.3 million acre reserve. 

    “We will continue to fight this at every turn,”¬†said Adam Kolton, director of the¬†Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement. “Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.” (NYT,¬†The Hill)

  2. UN calls for investigation into Trump’s Arctic drilling plan

    The UN is¬†calling for an investigation¬†into the Trump administration’s plan to open the ANWR oil and gas drilling, finding that it may violate the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination due to its impact on the Gwich’in people. The Gwich’in consider the coastal plain sacred, and it is a critical calving ground for the Procupine caribou herd, upon which their sustenance and way of life depend. The move by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was prompted by a¬†letter¬†submitted by the the Gwich‚Äôin Steering Committee and supporters last fall. (Gizmodo)

  3. Biden administration defends Alaska oil drilling project

    Disappointingly, the Biden White House has filed a brief with the US¬†District Court for Alaska defending¬†ConocoPhillips’ Trump-approved lease to drill within the¬†National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), which is being challenged by environmentalists. “Conoco does have valid lease rights,”¬†the filing states, noting that under law the company is entitled to develop its leases “subject to reasonable regulation.”

    The¬†New York Times¬†adds: “In a paradox worthy of Kafka, ConocoPhillips plans to install ‘chillers’¬†into the permafrost‚ÄĒwhich is fast melting because of climate change‚ÄĒto keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil, the burning of which will continue to worsen ice melt.¬†Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Arctic ecosystems are in disarray, sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising and the ground is thawing.”

  4. Biden scraps Trump-era Alaska drilling plan

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