Suit challenges review underlying Alaska oil lease sale

Dec 20, 2022, 10:27 PM | Updated: Dec 21, 2022, 12:54 pm

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Environmental groups on Wednesday sued the Biden administration over next week’s planned lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, saying the sale, mandated by Congress, is based on a faulty environmental review.

The groups aren’t asking a judge to prevent the sale from being held as scheduled Dec. 30. But they want to put “bidders on notice that we’re challenging the lawfulness of the sale, so … if they bid, they’ll be bidding with that knowledge,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing several of the groups.

The lawsuit asks that a judge strike down the environmental review underlying the lease sale and vacate or enjoin any leases that are issued as part of the sale, among other things.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, lists as defendants the U.S. Interior Department, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and agency officials. The plaintiffs are Cook Inletkeeper, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Tyler Cherry, an Interior spokesperson, said the agency had no comment.

The U.S. Interior Department in May said it would not move forward with the proposed Cook Inlet sale due to a “lack of industry interest,” according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. But over the summer, Congress passed legislation that called for a lease sale in Cook Inlet by year’s end and two lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico next year. The provisions were part of a sprawling package that also included major investments in efforts to fight climate change.

The Cook Inlet basin is Alaska’s oldest producing oil and gas basin, dating to the 1950s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Production in the basin peaked in the early 1970s, the agency said.

Grafe said the Interior Department has discretion when it comes to such things as the size of a lease sale, and the objection is that the Biden administration has decided to hold “pretty much … a maximalist lease sale.” The upcoming sale includes more than 950,000 acres (385,000 hectares).

The lawsuit argues that environmental review failed to adequately evaluate the impacts of a sale, including on whales, and that an analysis on greenhouse gas emissions was based on flawed modeling. It also claims the review failed to consider “a reasonable range of alternatives” for the lease sale.

Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, expressed outrage that the administration “is moving ahead with a lease sale in Cook Inlet in the midst of the climate crisis and knowing the long-term harm that oil and gas drilling will cause to this precious marine environment and our coastal communities. This is the time for restoration and renewal, and for a swift transition to renewable energy.”

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Suit challenges review underlying Alaska oil lease sale