A federal agency performed inadequate environmental review before approving petroleum exploration in a northern Alaska reserve, according to a lawsuit filed by a nearby tribe and five environmental groups.
The Native Village of Nuiqsut and the groups on Thursday sued the Bureau of Land Management, saying the agency in December rubber-stamped a plan submitted by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. for exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
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National environmental law requires the agency to consider direct, indirect and cumulative effects of exploration, the groups said. If exploration may have significant effects, the agency is required to prepare a formal Environmental Impact Statement or supply a convincing statement why effects are insignificant.
Neither was done, according to the lawsuit.
"There has been little or no consultation with us by either BLM or the company about how things are going to be done," said Martha Itta, administrator for the Native village of Nuiqsut, in a statement. "We need everything to slow down so we can understand the impacts of past, current, and future projects so we can adapt to the changes that are altering and affecting our lives."
BLM spokeswoman Ellis-Wouters said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Meredith Kenny also said by email that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
The petroleum reserve was created in 1923 by President Warren Harding as the Naval Petroleum Reserve and set aside as an emergency oil supply for the Navy. The reserve covers 35,625 square miles (92,269 sq. kilometers), about the size of Indiana.
Congress in 1976 renamed the reserve and transferred administration to the Interior Department.
Nuiqsut is about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of the Beaufort Sea and on the east border of the reserve.
The ConocoPhillips exploration plan calls for nearly 70 miles (113 kilometers) of ice roads, up to 23 ice pads and the drilling of six new exploratory wells, according to the lawsuit. Roads and pads constructed of ice are designed to allow travel without damage to tundra below them.
The lawsuit said road construction can create habitat fragmentation and impede caribou migration patterns, which could have direct effects for Nuiqsut subsistence hunters.
Exploration also expands industrial activity around the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, according to the lawsuit. Congress identified the area for maximum protection because of its importance as migratory bird habitat.
The lawsuit seeks a court-ordered reversal of BLM's conclusion that exploration will have no significant impact.