Vol. 25, No.48 Week of November 29, 2020
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Another lawsuit filed

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Environmental organizations appeal against BLM approval of Willow development

Alan Bailey

for Petroleum News

As part of what has become a continuing paradigm for planned North Slope oil and gas activities, on Nov. 17 the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic and four environmental organizations filed an appeal in the federal District Court for Alaska, challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow oilfield development in the northeastern National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. In addition, on the eastern side of the North Slope, there have been further filings in four appeals against the Department of the Interior’s decision to authorize oil and gas lease sales in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Willow appeal

The appeal against the Willow development argues that BLM’s approval decision violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The development includes the construction of drill sites, a processing center, an operations center and access roads.

The new appeal argues that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluated the potential impacts of the Willow project on polar bears, a species designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, “FWS failed to articulate a rational connection between the facts found and the no-jeopardy conclusion reached,” thus violating both the ESA and the APA. FWS also failed to include in its evaluation a statement assessing the potential number of “incidental takes” of the bears, the appeal claims. The FWS evaluation of potential polar bear impacts was one of the factors taken into account in BLM’s approval decision.

Adequate consideration of concerns?

The appellees also argue that, in preparing its final environmental impact statement for the Willow development, BLM failed to address “extensive concerns raised about the project and the agencies’ analysis.” Nor did the FEIS adequately consider the changes that ConocoPhillips made to its project plan following the publication of the original draft EIS, the filing says. Other issues raised in the filing include questions over adequate responses to public concerns regarding the potential environmental impacts of water crossings, including a planned crossing of the Colville River.

The appeal also argues that, in preparing the FEIS, BLM did not consider an adequate range of project alternatives, and that the agency had failed to require a right-of-way application from ConocoPhillips.

ANWR legal filings

Meanwhile, as previously reported in Petroleum News, there are four appeals already underway in the Alaska District Court, challenging the authorization of lease sales for the ANWR coastal plain. The first of these was filed by the Gwich’in Steering Group and 11 environmental organizations; the second by four other environmental organizations; the third by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, the Arctic Village Council, and the Venetie Village Council; and the fourth by 15 U.S. states.

In mid-November the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute filed to intervene in all four cases. And at around the same time, the Bureau of Land Management filed its response to the various allegations in the third and fourth cases, with the agency arguing that for various reasons the allegations in the cases lack merit.

The Village of Venetie and Arctic Village are home to the Gwich’in, a Native people of Arctic Alaska and northern Canada. The Gwich’in have for many years expressed strong concern about the potential impact of oil and gas industrial activities on the Porcupine caribou herd that calves on the ANWR coastal plain - caribou form a primary subsistence food source for the Gwich’in.

However, there is a diversity of views on the North Slope regarding potential ANWR oil development, given the potential for development to bring economic benefits to the region. Supporters of oil development argue that the use of modern technology and limitations on surface land use can minimize environmental impacts. The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. recently requested authorization for 3D seismic surveying in the eastern region of the ANWR coastal plain.

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