U.S. Court Ruling Blocks Alaska Oil Lease Sale
ANCHORAGE A federal judge issued a preliminary ruling on Thursday that temporarily blocks the U.S. administration's plan to allow oil development in the sensitive wetlands near vast Teshekpuk Lake in Arctic Alaska.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to properly consider the impact of oil development in areas near the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the state's North Slope region, U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton said.
The marshy tundra that lies between Teshekpuk Lake, the biggest inland water body in Arctic Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean is prized for both its wildlife and its petroleum potential.
Singleton said that, unless the BLM can convince him to change his mind, the Teshekpuk Lake sale, scheduled to take place on Sept. 27, might not be held because it was based on flawed environmental assumptions.
If the BLM sold oil and gas leases for the 1.7 million acres adjacent to Teshekpuk Lake, it would be difficult to alter development rules in the future, he said.
"This would constitute an irreparable injury," he wrote in the ruling.
The U.S. Interior Department has estimated that the land holds 1.4 billion barrels of oil and, after a review lasting several years, the BLM scheduled a lease sale that included stipulations intended to limit surface disturbance and environmental damage.
The area provides an important habitat for migratory waterfowl from three continents during their featherless molting period. It is also home to a herd of caribou, hunted by residents of seven nearby Inupiat Eskimo villages, a representative of one of the environmental plaintiffs said.
"The wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are among the most important in the entire Arctic," said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, one of the plaintiffs.
The judge has given both sides in the dispute until Sept. 15 to respond to his preliminary ruling.
Deirdre McDonnell, a Juneau-based attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice who is representing the plaintiffs, said she expected the preliminary ruling to stand.
"The clients have taken the position that they should cancel the lease sale. They don't think it's appropriate to be leasing in this sensitive area at all," she said.
A BLM spokeswoman said the agency was still examining the ruling and what it should do next.
The BLM has held three lease sales in the petroleum reserve since 1999, reaping over $222 million in high bids and resulting in a flurry of exploration drilling and some discoveries in the northern section.