Injunction sought over Trump’s Arctic refuge drilling plan amid fears for polar bears

‘The Trump administration seems determined to push polar bears further down the path to extinction before leaving office,’ says the Center for Biological Diversity 

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Wednesday 16 December 2020 22:16
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National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's annual report card on the state of the Arctic

Indigenous groups and environmentalists are fighting in court to stop the Trump administration selling off oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in early January. 

In separate filings on Tuesday, the groups sought a preliminary injunction from an Alaskan federal court to prevent the Department of Interior (DOI) from issuing leases to fossil fuel companies or authorising permits for seismic exploration in the unspoiled area. 

Litigation began in August, when groups challenged the plan to open the iconic and untouched public-lands area to the oil and gas industry.

If the court grants the groups’ request, it could delay any decisions about the refuge until after president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on 20 January.  Mr Biden opposes drilling in the pristine region and he has promised to ban new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters.

The Bureau of Land Management, which is part of DOI, said this month that it plans to sell-off oil and gas rights in ANWR on 6 January, 2021. The Independent has sought comment from the DOI. 

Last month, BLM announced a 30-day period for parties to nominate or comment on potential areas for sale. The sale date was announced before the end of the comment period, and groups criticised the process as rushed.

Parcelling off America’s public lands to oil and gas companies, along with encouraging mining and logging, has been a hallmark of the Trump era. And as the window closes on Mr Trump’s sole term in office, his administration is rushing to complete energy deals and the last of more than 100 environmental rollbacks.

 The groups – National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who are being represented by environmental lawyers Earthjustice – requested a decision before 6 January.

Last week, the Trump administration also proposed allowing companies intent on oil and gas exploration in the refuge to disrupt polar bears living there.                                                                                                                                    

The so-called “incidental harassment authorisation” proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service would pave the way for seismic surveys in the refuge’s coastal plain.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that no polar bears are expected to be injured or killed during seismic operations, some of which are scheduled to take place in January, and that the disturbances would only impact a few bears.

But several veteran Arctic scientists and environmentalists have warned that the operations, which can involve blasting, will upset wildlife.  

They argue that the heavy machinery and activity involved in the work will damage tundra and speed up the thaw of permafrost.

“The Trump administration seems determined to push polar bears further down the path to extinction before leaving office,” said Kristen Monsell, legal director of CBD’s oceans programme. 

The refuge is a breeding ground for threatened polar bears and home to grey wolves, musk oxen and caribou, along with migratory birds from around the world.

Reuters reported that that Alaska Native-owned company, Kaktovik Inupiat Corp is seeking to use seismic tests next month to search for oil deposits within 550,000 acres (223,000 hectares)in the refuge’s 1.6 million-acre refuge coastal plain.

The incidental harassment authorisation will be finalised after 30 days of public. That would allow for seismic surveys to be approved just before Biden enters office.

Environmentalists also say that the federal government failed to adequately analyse greenhouse gas emissions from potential drilling in the area. 

In Tuesday’s court filing, the groups referenced a decision earlier this month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that cancelled approval of what could become the nation’s first offshore oil production facility in federal Arctic waters.

In that decision, the court found that the DOI had failed to account for increased carbon emissions overseas when it approved the project. 

The Trump sell-off will also impact the indigenous Gwich’in people, who have cited concerns on the impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd on which they have relied for subsistence. The Gwich’in steering committee have been battling to protect the region from oil and gas companies for decades.

“The oil and gas lease sales on the Arctic Refuge demonstrate the Trump administration’s complete disregard for the human rights of the Gwich’in & Inupiat people and our ways of life that depend on the health of the Refuge’s coastal plain,” said Jody Potts (Han Gwich’in), Native Movement regional director. 

“In the Arctic, our peoples are being heavily impacted by a climate crisis due to fossil fuel extraction, which we cannot afford to continue.”  

Earlier this month, Bank of America ruled out financing oil drilling in the Arctic region, including the ANWR. It joined all other major US banks - Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citi – who announced similar policies earlier this year. 

Reuters contributed to this report

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