Appeals court affirms decision on leases in petroleum reserve

Environmental groups wanted increased wildlife protection

Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A federal appeals court on Wednesday affirmed a decision that clears the way for oil exploration in part of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

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A three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed a ruling by Judge James K. Singleton Jr. of Anchorage in January 2005 that rejected efforts by a coalition of environmental groups to increase wildlife protections in the northwest section of the 23.5 million-acre NPR-A.

"We're certainly disappointed in the decision," said Stan Senner, executive director of Alaska Audubon. "We think BLM failed to consider a range of alternatives in the northwest NPR-A."

The decision affects 8.8 million acres south and west of Barrow, Senner said.

Singleton in January 2005 found that the environmental groups failed to make their case that the government, which is leasing land for oil and gas drilling in the reserve, violated environmental and other laws.

The groups included Northern Alaska Environmental Center, the National Audubon Society, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Alaska Wilderness League and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The coalition sued in 2004, and later asked Singleton to block a planned lease sale in the northwest NPR-A, one of three sections in the reserve. The judge denied the request and the Bureau of Land Management went ahead with the lease sale. It drew nearly $54 million in winning bids from oil companies.

The environmental groups said the government failed to sufficiently evaluate specific sites for environmental consequences.

But the judges agreed with government attorneys who said no drilling site analysis is possible until it's known where drilling is likely to take place - and that can't be known until after leasing and exploration.

Government attorneys said environmental consequences at specific sites could be assessed with later applications for drilling permits.

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