A flurry of lawsuits aim to stop drilling plans in Alaska’s Arctic. So what’s next?

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop in October 2010.
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (Public domain photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Alaska Native groups, environmental groups and, most recently, a coalition of 15 states have filed a flurry of lawsuits over the past month that aim to derail drilling plans for Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and National Petroleum Reserve.

These are separate lawsuits over separate pieces of land — a lot of land — and it’s a lot to keep track of.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript of Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon and Casey Grove trying to sort through it all.

[GROVE]: Well, let’s just get right into it. Can you briefly summarize what triggered these lawsuits?

[HANLON]: Yes. So there have been two big, recent developments when it comes to oil and gas drilling on Alaska’s North Slope.

Number one: The Trump administration announced in August its official plan for opening up part of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas development. It’s an area called the coastal plain, and it sits to the east of Prudhoe Bay. The coastal plain makes up about 8% of the whole refuge. But the whole refuge is massive, so 8% of it is about the size of the state of Delaware.

It’s a place believed to hold billions of barrels of untapped oil, but it’s also an area where caribou migrate, polar bears den and migratory birds feed. And environmental groups have long fought to keep drilling rigs out.

And so, this official plan for oil and gas development on the land comes out in August, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says that the federal government could auction off drilling rights in the coastal plain to oil and gas companies by the end of the year. (Once leases are issued, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course.)

All of it is a very big deal.

[GROVE]: OK. I got that part. So, what’s number two.

Significant development number two: On the other side of Prudhoe Bay, to the west, sits Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, also called the NPR-A. There’s already some oil and gas development going on in the NPR-A, but there’s also land that is off-limits to drilling under the current Obama-era plan for the reserve.

But the Trump administration is working on a new management plan for the reserve, and it released its final environmental impact statement for that plan in June. The proposal would make about 80% of the NPR-A open to drilling instead of the current 50% or so. And that includes opening up the Teshekpuk Lake area — in the reserve’s northeastern corner — to drilling.

The next step is the government issuing what it calls a record of decision — or you might hear it referred to as a “ROD” — basically it’s just the final decision.

Again, all of it is also a very big deal.

And, like the Arctic Refuge, the NPR-A is also thought to hold billions of barrels of oil but it’s also an important habitat for birds and caribou and other wildlife. In both areas, there’s also concerns about impacts to subsistence, the climate and the land.

[GROVE]: And then came the lawsuits, right?

[HANLON]: Yes! And then came an avalanche of lawsuits.

Actually, two of the lawsuits related to development in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain were filed Wednesday.

One by a tribal government and two village councils and another by a coalition of 15 states including New Jersey and New York and Washington, but not including Alaska.

Taken together, the lawsuits are hundreds of pages.

At the most basic level the claims very broadly boil down to alleging that the federal government glossed over the impacts that oil and gas development could have on the land, wildlife, climate and subsistence. And, they say, the government failed to follow numerous environmental laws when developing the plans.

Here’s how EarthJustice attorney Kate Glover summarized the claims in one of the Arctic Refuge lawsuits:

“The problem is that BLM is pushing prioritizing oil and gas over all other purposes… all of the claims in the lawsuit are targeting their failure to take into account the impacts on Indigenous communities, wildlife, subsistence and recreational wilderness values of the refuge.”

The Bureau of Land Management counters that its actions are lawful and based on the best available science.

[GROVE]: So what’s the status of the lawsuits currently?

Well, they’re all in U.S. District Court in Alaska, so federal court. We’ve got the two just filed. And there are at least four others that are still really early on in the process.

Lawyers say the NPR-A lawsuits will likely start moving through the court process once the federal government issues its final decision on a management plan.

And, lawyers who filed two other Arctic Refuge lawsuits say they’re now waiting on the federal government to answer the complaint. One lawyer I spoke with said a ruling from the judge may not come for a year or so.

[GROVE]: Can the federal government move ahead with a lease sale with lawsuits ongoing?

[HANLON]: The short answer is: Right now, yes.

The Bureau of Land Management says “there is no legal prohibition” right now for it to move forward with a lease sale, in the case of the Arctic Refuge, or a final decision on a management plan, in the case of the NPR-A.

Then if a judge rules in a way that makes the lease sale or the management plan invalid, well, that’s a whole other conversation for us to have.

Also: I was curious if the filing of the lawsuits would have any impact on oil companies’ decisions on where to drill.

Lawyers who filed the lawsuit are hopeful that’s the case.

But Kara Moriarty who leads the Alaska Oil and Gas Association says she doubts it. She says the lawsuits aren’t surprising.

“Lawsuits have just become a way of life. And it was not surprising to us. If the industry was concerned about lawsuits these days, they’d probably never invest in Alaska anymore in the oil and gas industry. Trying to use lawsuits to keep resources in the ground has become a tried and trued page out of a playbook by groups.”

[GROVE]: Well, to close out: Any ETA at this point on a lease sale or official decision on the NPR-A management plan?

[HANLON]: No, no set date announced publicly at this point. That’s the million-dollar question.

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