National Audubon Society et al. v. David Bernhardt et al.

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Credit: Nora Apter/NRDC

On August 24, 2020, NRDC and Earthjustice lawyers, representing the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and NRDC, filed a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s decision to open 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the Coastal Plain—to oil and gas leasing.

The Coastal Plain is the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: 1.56 million acres of tundra ecosystem that provide essential breeding, birthing, foraging, and overwintering habitat to countless animals, including polar bears, caribou, and birds from all 50 states. It comprises vast expanses of tundra, braided rivers, slopes, foothills, and shallow lakes and ponds. It is also exceedingly sensitive to change, with a short growing season, soils and waterbodies perched on permafrost and ice, and a thin, protective layer of productive vegetation that is vulnerable to disturbance and slow to recover.

The decision from the then-Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department (DOI), David Bernhardt, and the Bureau of Land Management ignored far-reaching adverse impacts and alternatives for reducing them, and unlawfully treated oil and gas as the dominant use of the refuge’s sensitive Coastal Plain. The accompanying biological opinion baselessly found the program adequately ensures against harm to polar bears.

Our complaint pleads violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, a voice for Indigenous communities, also filed a lawsuit, joined by other conservation groups. The Gwich’in people have depended on the Porcupine caribou herd, which calves on the Coastal Plain, for thousands of years. Protecting the Coastal Plain and caribou are thus a matter of basic human rights for the Gwich’in and the Indigenous peoples who stand with them and also depend on the Coastal Plain’s natural values.

On January 6, 2021, the Trump administration held an auction for oil and gas leases within the refuge. But thanks in part to the active litigation and public pressure, only three bidders took part. Similarly, owing to overwhelming public input and strong expert analysis mustered in part by NRDC, DOI failed in its effort to greenlight potentially disastrous seismic exploration there. 

And in his first week in office, President Biden issued an executive order placing a temporary moratorium on activities implementing the leasing program and instructed DOI to review the program. The Biden/Harris administration now has the opportunity to wholly reassess the oil and gas program and the recently issued leases. While the administration pursues this review, we’ll continue to advocate both inside and outside of the courts to ensure the Refuge is never industrialized. 

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