Interior Urges Court to Allow Alaskan Lease Sale

The U.S. Interior Department is urging a federal judge to reverse course and allow a Sept. 27 sale of oil leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, claiming it properly reviewed the leasing's environmental effects despite the judge's preliminary decision this month that found otherwise.

A court brief filed Friday says Interior's Bureau of Land Management took the "required 'hard look'" at the cumulative effects of the final leasing plan for the NPR-A's northeast section, alleging the court erred in finding the analysis deficient.

Interior had been planning a Sept. 27 oil and gas lease sale spanning around 8 million acres of the reserve, including newly available acreage in sensitive wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake in the reserve's northeast section.

Judge James Singleton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska issued a preliminary decision earlier this month blocking the sale (Greenwire, Sept. 8). He found that Interior's final environmental impact statement for the northeast oil and gas leasing plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The judge agreed with environmental groups, who brought suit alleging the leasing plan for the northeast area finalized early this year failed to address the "cumulative impacts" of leasing on northeast and northwest sections of the reserve. He asked for further briefing based on the initial decision.

In its Friday brief, Interior alleges the preliminary decision was in error and said the lease sale should proceed. The department said its plan looked comprehensively at the effects on caribou, air quality, water quality and many other issues on the entire North Slope, which encompasses the entire NPRA.

"This discussion clearly shows that BLM conducted the required 'hard look' at those impacts given the limited nature of information available at the leasing stage," the brief states. It later argues against blocking the lease sale, arguing that it should proceed even if there was some legal error in Interior's final plan for the northeast area.

The Interior brief says preventing the lease sale would not be appropriate because environmentalists have not shown there would be "irreparable injury" from the errors they say are contained in the final plan. Also, the brief says injunctive relief is supposed to be "narrowly tailored" to remedy specific violations.

The brief says the most any court-ordered remedy should do it require the agency to "supplement" the environmental impact statement for the northeast plan if evidence emerges it would increase development in the northwest section of the reserve. "This remedy would be consistent with the obligation under NEPA to supplement an EIS when significant new information becomes known," the brief states.

Environmental groups are seeking to block leasing in wetlands surrounding the lake. Interior's development plan for the area includes 400,000 acres that were unavailable in earlier plans, including acreage around the lake that provides important habitat for caribou, migratory birds and other animals.

Interior says the final plan contains a suite of important leasing restrictions and protections that will allow environmentally sensitive efforts to tap an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil in the area. Environmentalists say even the leasing restrictions will fragment and harm habitat.

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