ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Groups in Alaska have sued the U.S. Interior Department to block an offshore oil and gas lease sale that residents say threatens Arctic marine wildlife and the traditional Inupiat Eskimo way of life.
The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Tuesday, claim the Minerals Management Service did a sloppy job in preparing for the Beaufort Sea lease sale scheduled on April 18.
The lawsuit claims the MMS pre-sale studies used outdated information and underestimated likely impacts of development to the environment and the Inupiat culture.
The borough and the whalers, longtime opponents of offshore oil development, fear spills, industrial noise and other disturbances could harm marine mammals.
“I really don’t want to go to court over this, but there are way too many unanswered questions about the impacts of offshore activity on the bowhead whale migration and on our subsistence activities,” North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta said in a prepared statement. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I just let this lease sale go.”
The MMS estimates the outer continental shelf of the Beaufort Sea hold 8.2 billion barrels of undiscovered recoverable oil and 27.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Itta traveled this week to Washington, D.C. to persuade Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and top MMS officials to postpone the Beaufort Sea lease sale pending more studies, but he was unsuccessful, David Harding, a spokesman for the mayor, said Wednesday.
The environmental assessment prepared by the MMS relies on information from 2003, including much lower prices of oil than the current price, Harding said. The current high prices would likely mean much more oil and gas development than would occur at lower prices, Harding said.
The assessment also fails to address impacts from a warming climate, the lawsuit charges.
Since 2003, “and more specifically since the increase in industry interest and changes in the climate, the physical, economic and social landscape of the (North Slope Borough) has significantly changed,” the lawsuit says. “The cumulative impacts from oil and gas activity, combined with the cumulative impacts of global warming, are significant.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order mandating the MMS complete a full environmental impact statement on the lease sale instead of the more truncated environmental assessment.
In his statement, Itta said North Slope Borough residents have been besieged by proposals for onshore and offshore oil development.
“People feel like it’s just too much, too soon, too fast,” he said.
The Interior Department was reviewing the lawsuit and did not have an immediate comment on it, spokeswoman Robin Cacy said in Anchorage.