Energy & Environment

Green groups challenge Trump plan to open 82 percent of Alaska reserve to drilling

US Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images

Two separate coalitions of green groups are suing the Trump administration to challenge plans that would open 82 percent of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve to oil drilling.

The plan, unveiled in late June, would allow for 18.7 million acres of the approximately 23 million-acre area to be leased to oil and gas companies.

It also brings development to some 7 million acres within so-called Special Areas inside the petroleum reserve, which were designed to be hands-off in order to protect habitats for wildlife.

“The agency has buckled under political pressure and is throwing away protections for these special areas, completely erasing important nesting habitats for some of the world’s most iconic birds and fragmenting critical habitat for caribou,” Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska, said in a release.

Between the two suits, the Department of the Interior is facing challenges from 10 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others.

The suits come just one day after environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit to block drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the petroleum reserve’s neighbor to the west, where the administration has pushed to open up 1.6 million acres to drilling. 

Though the lands of the petroleum reserve were more specifically set aside for drilling, green groups say the Department of the Interior did not fully consider the effects on wildlife who rely on the lands set aside in the Special Areas. That includes the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a 22-mile lake that serves as important grounds for many animals within the reserve. 

“At a time when the world is grappling with a grave climate crisis, we cannot allow the oil industry to continue to expand its grip on America’s Arctic, where it will drill and destroy one of our most extraordinary, yet fragile, natural treasures,” Rebecca Noblin, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement.

Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of four groups. 

“The plan is environmentally irresponsible and indefensible.”

The Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which oversaw the environmental analysis of the drilling plans, will still need to make a final decision on the drilling plan before it can proceed.

“Responsible exploration and development of the NPR-A is vital to our nation’s energy independence and economic security. The Department’s commonsense actions are lawful and based on the best available science, and we will continue to implement President Trump’s agenda to create more American jobs, protect the safety of American workers, support domestic energy production and conserve our environment,” Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said in an email to The Hill.

The main arguments of the lawsuit involve the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires thorough environmental review before major projects.

The suits argue BLM failed to present its ultimate drilling plan for public feedback and also did not properly weigh alternatives to such a large expansion of drilling.

“BLM failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives … including an alternative that would provide stronger protections for the reserve’s resources and limit the impacts of oil and gas activities,” according to one of the suits.

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