ANCHORAGE - Conservation and Alaska Native groups sued the federal government Thursday seeking to stop a petroleum lease sale within an area nearly the size of Pennsylvania off Alaska's northwest shore.
The groups claim the Minerals Management Service environmental review was flawed and did not fairly evaluate potential effects on wildlife.
They also say the federal government has ignored changing conditions in the Arctic Ocean, including record low summer sea ice last year, that already put stress on polar bears, Pacific walrus, beluga whales, gray whales and seals.
"The Chukchi Sea is an ecologically rich frontier environment, and it is changing rapidly due to global warming," said Stan Senner, Audubon Alaska executive director. "We barely know this changing seascape, and this is not the time to move forward with a massive lease sale."
"We're in the process of reviewing it, and will determine what we do after we've reviewed it," Minerals Management Service spokesman Gary Strasburg said of the lawsuit.
Alaska's lone U.S. representative, Don Young, however, condemned the lawsuit.
"Today's lawsuit is the first of an endless series of court challenges and appeals the national environmental organizations have been planning in their goal of using the polar bear issue for much larger purposes and goals," he said.
The groups want to stop domestic production of 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, he said.
"These groups intend to use polar bears and the Endangered Species Act to shut down resource activities in Alaska the same way they used the spotted owl to shut down the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest," Young said.
The lawsuit does not seek an injunction to block the sale, scheduled for Wednesday in Anchorage, said Earthjustice attorney Eric Jorgensen, but asks the court to declare leases invalid if they were granted improperly.
"We're hoping the secretary chooses not to go forward with the lease sale in the face of the challenge," Jorgensen said, as well as pending federal legislation. U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on Tuesday introduced legislation to prohibit oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until the full effect on polar bear populations was understood.
Jorgensen said the lawsuit seeks a more thorough environmental review.
The groups claim the agency went forward with lease sale plans despite gaps in wildlife information such walrus, seal and fish populations and the migration and feeding patterns of bowhead and gray whales.
According to the groups, the agency based its environmental review on a single offshore field producing a billion barrels of oil, the minimum deemed economic to develop. They say the review did not consider the likelihood of additional fields needed to extract 8.4 billion barrels the agency estimates could be economically developed at $60 per barrel.
The review also assumed oil would eventually be carried to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and does not analyze the possibility of tankers taking oil to market through the Chukchi, the lawsuit said.
It omits analysis of natural gas development because there's no transportation infrastructure in place, but does not consider liquefied natural gas facilities and tankers, the lawsuit said.
It also understates the effects of submersible "air guns" that fire shots of compressed air into water to survey the geology of the sea bed structure, the lawsuit said. An array of the air guns can produce peak pressures of sound of more than 250 decibels, according to the groups.
Chris Krenz, arctic project manager for Oceana, said the lease sale has gone forward without a transparent process.
"The administration started with the conclusion that it wanted to drill in the Chukchi, then asked for information, and when that information didn't support their conclusion, they suppressed it," he said.
Steve Oomittuk, mayor of Point Hope, an Inupiat Eskimo coast village of 737, said his community opposes any activity that endangers villagers' way of life.
"This is our garden, our identity, our livelihood," Oomittuk said. "Without it we would not be who we are today. Even at this present day and time the animals from these waters shelter, clothe, and feed us."