For Immediate Release
Lawsuit Launched to Compel Trump Administration Transparency on Arctic Refuge Drilling
Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) sued the Trump administration today for failing to release public records related to potential exploration, leasing, and drilling for oil and gas resources on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks emails, planning documents, authorizations and other records from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning fossil fuel development in the refuge. Defenders requested copies of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, but the Trump administration has failed to comply with statutory deadlines for release, withholding some responsive records for nearly eight months.
The records sought include communications between Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, oil exploration companies and industry officials, as well as information disclosing the impacts of imminent seismic testing on imperiled polar bears. These documents could expose the administration’s reckless rush to bypass environmental laws and limit public input to drill in these iconic public wildlands, home to hundreds of sensitive species.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO for Defenders of Wildlife, issued the following statement:
“The Trump administration cannot hide its destructive plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The administration’s heedless rush to exploit America’s last great wildlands would convert critical denning habitat for imperiled polar bears into an expansive, polluting oilfield. Federal agencies cannot ignore Americans’ strong opposition to desecrating this wildlife reserve, an area sacred to the Gwich’in people, and the legal requirement for transparency in decision-making.
The public has a right to know how the Arctic Refuge is being sold out to the oil industry, and now we will shine a bright light on these misdeeds in federal court.”
The Drilling Threat
- Legislative efforts to open the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain to oil and gas development were defeated for decades until Congress inserted an unrelated, divisive provision into the tax reform reconciliation bill enacted in December 2017, circumventing full and fair congressional debate.
- The Bureau of Land Management is currently evaluating a proposal from the oil services company, SAExploration Inc., to conduct seismic testing across the entire Coastal Plain beginning this winter. The agency is also proceeding with a planning process to establish an oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain, with the goal of selling out these wildlands to the highest bidder by the end of 2019.
The Risks of Oil Exploration and Development
- The large seismic testing operation proposed by SAExploration, Inc. would involve crews of people and vehicles driving across the Coastal Plain dragging sled camps, building temporary infrastructure, scarring the fragile tundra, and creating extensive noise, vibration and disturbance. Impacts to wildlife and wilderness values would be severe.
- Oil exploration would occur during polar bear denning season, in designated critical habitat for this threatened species, which encompasses 77 percent of the Coastal Plain. The Southern Beaufort Sea population of bears already numbers as few as 900 individuals. Seismic testing could frighten mother bears from their dens, leaving cubs to perish. The 90,000-pound seismic vehicles could even run over dens, crushing bears to death and contributing further to the species decline.
- Industrial oil development would turn pristine habitat into a steel spiderweb of pipelines, airstrips, drill rigs, roads, gravel mines, buildings and other infrastructure. Oil spills, leaks, and pollution could irreparably damage refuge ecosystems, upsetting ecological processes and imperiling the iconic and sensitive species that call this special place home.
Why We’re Fighting for the Arctic Refuge
- Located in northeast Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place of breathtaking natural beauty and rugged wildness. It provides vital nesting habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds from all 50 states and six continents; the most important onshore denning habitat for threatened polar bears in the United States; spawning streams for Dolly Varden and other valued fish species; and room to roam for caribou, wolves, muskoxen, Dall sheep, arctic foxes and many other wildlife species.
- The 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain, where exploration and drilling would occur, is the biological heart of the refuge. Fossil fuel development would permanently alter this vital landscape, turning it into an industrial oil field and threatening the species that depend on it.
- The Coastal Plain is the principal calving ground of the spectacular Porcupine caribou herd, which numbers nearly 200,000 animals. The indigenous Gwich’in people of northeastern Alaska and Canada have depended on the herd for their subsistence economy and cultural identity for millennia. The Gwich’in strongly oppose oil drilling. They revere the Coastal Plain as “the sacred place where life begins” due to its importance to the caribou.
- The majority of the Coastal Plain is designated critical habitat for federally protected polar bears. Mother polar bears are increasingly coming ashore to den and care for their newborn cubs on the Coastal Plain due to the climate-driven loss of sea ice.
- Much of the Arctic Refuge was first protected over half a century ago by the Eisenhower administration to preserve its unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended congressional wilderness designation for the Coastal Plain.
- Industrializing America’s most iconic national wildlife refuge is extremely controversial. According to 2017 polling, 70 percent of American voters oppose drilling in the refuge.
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.