Alaska North Slope group sues Biden administration over oil-development limits

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - July 2, 2024
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Lakes and connecting streams in the northeastern part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska are seen from the air on June 26, 2014. (Photo by Bob Wick/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Lakes and connecting streams in the northeastern part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska are seen from the air on June 26, 2014. A lawsuit filed by a coalition of North Slope governments, corporations and tribes has sued to overturn new restrictions on oil development in the reserve. (Photo by Bob Wick/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

A coalition of North Slope local and regional governments, tribal governments and Native corporations has sued to overturn new environmental protections in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by the organization Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, claims that the rule enacted by the Department of the Interior on April 19 should be invalidated because it resulted from a flawed process.

The new rule, which the Bureau of Land Management proposed last September before making final in April, makes some incremental changes in the Integrated Activity Plan that was issued in 2013 by the Obama administration. That plan put about half of the reserve off-limits to leasing and identified five “special areas” as sites closed to development because of their ecological and cultural importance.

The new rule codifies protections that are in the integrated activity plan, making them requirements rather than guidelines. It makes the protections for the five designated areas more permanent and contains provisions for possible future additions.

The limits on oil development are at the heart of the lawsuit, which claims the rule “turns vast swaths of the NPR-A into a de facto conservation system unit.”

The members of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a diverse group that includes the North Slope Borough government, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and Ilisagvik College in Utqiagvik, have significant interests in continued oil development in the Indiana-sized reserve, the lawsuit states. The members benefit from revenues and employment generated through oil development there, it says.

In its lawsuit, which names the BLM, the Interior Department, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and BLM Alaska Director Steve Cohn as defendants, Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat contends that the new rule was enacted improperly because of several legal shortcomings. Among them were the agency’s failure to conduct a full environmental impact statement, the diversion from four decades of NPR-A management that emphasized oil development and a lack of “meaningful” engagement with the people of the North Slope, the lawsuit said.

“Our complaint speaks for the North Slope Iñupiat’s voices whom the federal government has chosen to silence, stonewall, and scorn since it blindsided us with its unilateral mandates in September 2023,” Nagruk Harcharek, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that we have been forced to turn to the courts for resolution on this seriously flawed rule and the process that produced it. If the administration would have meaningfully engaged with the North Slope Iñupiat, we would likely not be in this position today.”

The Interior Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The new rule followed an attempt by the Trump administration to enact a new plan to replace the Obama-era integrated activity plan. The plan would have opened 82% of the reserve to oil leasing, including the areas in and around Teshekpuk Lake, the North Slope’s largest lake, which has been the subject of decades-long protections.

The Trump plan, though made final in that administration’s last days, was never enacted, and management continued under the 2013 Obama administration plan.

The petroleum reserve, located on the western side of the North Slope, holds large amounts of oil in a geologic formation called Nunashuk, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Though development there occurred much later than that at Prudhoe Bay and other sites on state land, there have been some big discoveries within the reserve that are connected to the Nunashuk formation. The most prominent is Willow, currently under development by ConocoPhillips and expected to start production in 2029.


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