Trump administration sued over Alaska wildlife refuge drilling plan

Trump administration sued over Alaska wildlife refuge drilling plan
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Environmental and indigenous groups are suing the Trump administration over plans to open up an area in an Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling.

Two lawsuits announced Monday claim the federal government didn’t adequately comply with environmental laws requiring thorough impact assessments as part of its plan, announced by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week, to open up 1.56 million acres of the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. The refuge totals 19.3 million acres.

One reason that selling off leases for drilling in the region is controversial is because of potential effects on the indigenous Gwich'in people, who hunt caribou in the area and to whom ANWR land is sacred. 

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Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which is one of the groups that is suing, argued the government’s decision “is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life.”

“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,” Demientieff said. 

Critics also say that drilling in the refuge could harm animal species found there and could also negatively affect the landscape itself.  

Animals in the refuge include grizzly bears, polar bears, gray wolves, caribou and arctic foxes.

“Developing Alaska’s last wild places would be a death sentence for polar bears and other threatened Arctic species. The oil industry just doesn’t belong in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said a statement from Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is part of the other lawsuit.

Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson noted that Congress, not the Interior Department, initially put the drilling plan in motion.

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“This is a congressionally mandated energy development program that leaves ninety-two percent of the refuge completely off-limits to development,” Swanson said in an email to The Hill. 

“The Department’s decision regarding where and when development can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears,” he added. 

Drilling leases in the region could be sold off as soon as this year, and the department is required to hold at least one lease sale by Dec. 22, 2021. 

A provision in the 2017 Trump tax bill approved by a GOP-controlled Congress opened ANWR to drilling following years of debate over the matter. The House, now led by Democrats, has since voted to block ANWR drilling again, but the GOP-controlled Senate has not taken up the bill. 

Both lawyers and Democratic lawmakers have also previously raised concerns about the thoroughness of the assessment of drilling’s impact on wildlife.

Updated at 4 p.m.