Conservation Groups File Lawsuit To Halt Million-Acres Oil, Gas Lease Sale In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, Say Violates NEPA

National and community-based environmental groups filed a legal challenge today to stop the Department of the Interior’s lease sale in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Lease sale 258, scheduled for Dec. 30, would auction off nearly a million acres of federal waters in southcentral Alaska, opening the door to decades of future oil and gas drilling.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit together with Earthjustice, which represents Cook Inletkeeper, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

“Our coastal communities have stood up repeatedly to say ‘no’ to oil and gas leasing in Lower Cook Inlet. This is our home, not a sacrifice zone,” said Taylor Kendal Smith, communications director for Cook Inletkeeper. “There would be little to gain in terms of affordable energy and much to lose in habitat, tourism, fisheries and beauty. Lower Cook Inlet is worth far more — both in economic and cultural senses of value — intact and protected than with oil platforms and pipelines.”

Today’s lawsuit argues that approval of the Cook Inlet lease sale violated the National Environmental Policy Act and should be vacated.

Even under the Inflation Reduction Act’s new mandates, Interior must adhere to NEPA’s requirements for public process when considering the leasing decision. The permitting agency, allege the groups, violated the law by failing to meaningfully account for climate impacts or consider alternatives that would cause less harm to the climate, marine life and surrounding communities. Interior has also fallen short on keeping the public adequately informed by failing to fully respond to public comments, they say.

“Here in Lower Cook Inlet, we need to do everything we can to safeguard our way of life against the threats of oil and gas development. We need protection of our fish and fisheries; we need protection of the ecological integrity of our ocean; we need the hope provided by renewable energy investment,” said Penelope Haas, vice president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. “Oil and gas are not the future. They are a threat to our future.”

Cook Inlet is home to beluga whales and sea otters protected under the Endangered Species Act. It supports thriving subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries and a multi-faceted tourist industry. The Inlet is also essential for Alaska Native communities, who have stewarded these lands and waters for millennia, says the lawsuit.

“The unnecessary destruction of precious ocean habitat by oil and gas drilling has to stop,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our climate can’t take it, and neither can the already-endangered Cook Inlet belugas and other species that will suffer more oil spills and noisy vessel traffic if this sale goes forward. Cook Inlet’s communities deserve better, and Interior needs to do its job as a public agency and protect this country’s irreplaceable public lands and waters.”

Alaska and the Arctic are experiencing more extreme consequences of climate change than the continental United States. Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and fishery collapse are all ramifications of the worsening global climate crisis, which the conservation groups say will only intensify with new drilling operations.

The Cook Inlet region experienced the devastation of a catastrophic oil spill from the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound more than 30 years ago. The government’s environmental analysis predicts a 1 in 5 chance of another large oil spill occurring from continued Cook Inlet drilling, contends the lawsuit.

Interior canceled the sale last May, but then announced it would move ahead in August after the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage. Though that legislation aimed to address climate change, it included a provision reviving this lease sale and mandating that it happen before the end of the year.

Despite this requirement, Interior retains full discretion as to how to conduct the sale, including the ability to:

–restrict the amount of offshore acreage put up for lease.

–limit allowable activity on leased acreage.

–establish timetables for drilling activity on a leased area.

–take other measures to limit harm.

But Interior, charges the lawsuit, has not taken steps to limit oil and gas drilling and has rejected alternatives that would have resulted in a much smaller lease area. Numerous scientific analyses have determined that the U.S. will not successfully slash greenhouse-gas emissions to meet its own established climate targets if it continues greenlighting new onshore and offshore oil and gas development on federal lands and waters.

“The Biden administration could have done so much more to limit the damage of lease sale 258. Instead, in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis, it’s offering a huge swath of the ocean, nearly a million acres, to fossil fuel bidders,” said Erik Grafe, deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office. “We’re going to court to force the administration to comply with our bedrock environmental laws, reconsider this mistake and act consistently with its climate and biodiversity commitments. The Inflation Reduction Act should not prevent the administration from making the right choices to protect future generations.”

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