NRDC and Partners Sue to Stop Oil Leasing in Cook Inlet, AK

Earlier today, a coalition of local and national environmental groups—including NRDC, Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Center for Biological Diversity, and Kachemak Bay Conservation Society—sued the Biden Administration to stop the Department of the Interior from leasing the federal waters of Cook Inlet, Alaska to the oil industry without first considering the environmental harms that will result.

What’s at Stake

Cook Inlet is home to many threatened and endangered species, including fin and humpback whales, the northern sea otter, Steller’s eider, and the 279 remaining Cook Inlet beluga whales. Two-thirds of Alaska’s residents live in the Cook Inlet watershed, and Native communities in the region depend on its waters for subsistence, employment, and the continuation of long-standing cultural practices.

Cook Inlet, Alaska

Peter Rimar via Wikimedia Commons

Lease Sale 258, scheduled for December 30, will open up nearly a million acres for oil and gas development in this vibrant ocean ecosystem and put both wildlife and residents’ livelihoods in harm’s way. Oil and gas development creates countless risks—from oil spills to dangerous noise and ship traffic. It’s also driving climate change. Alaska is already warming faster than any other state in the US. And the effects are noticeable—extreme weather events are more frequent, sea ice is melting, and fisheries are closing as a result. The region can’t afford new oil development.

What’s worse, new leasing is unnecessary. As my NRDC colleague Lauren Kubiak has written, our oil reserves and existing oil and gas leases supply more than enough energy to meet our current energy needs. There is increasing capacity for solar and wind energy that can substitute for oil and gas. Renewable energy sources are also getting cheaper. At the same time, consumer demand for gasoline is expected to decrease in the future due to increasingly stringent efficiency and electrification policies. And the Biden Administration itself has pledged to reach a 100% carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. There has also been little industry interest in Lease Sale 258. In fact, as my colleague Irene Gutierrez blogged about this spring, Interior actually canceled this lease sale in May, before being directed by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to hold it after all.

Why We’re Suing

Even though the IRA mandated that Interior hold Lease Sale 258 by the end of this year, Interior retained discretion to decide how much acreage to offer for lease, to limit activity on any leased acreage, and to take other actions to limit the harms from the sale. Before deciding to hold the lease sale, Interior needed to carefully examine its environmental impacts and consider less harmful alternatives. But it failed to do that.

So we’re going to court. Our lawsuit argues that Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it didn’t adequately evaluate the environmental impacts of Lease Sale 258, consider less harmful alternatives, or respond to concerns expressed in public comments. Interior’s analysis of the Lease Sale’s climate impacts, effects on beluga whales, risks of oil spills, and costs were flawed and misleading. It also arbitrarily ignored alternatives that would have caused significantly less wildlife harm and environmental damage to the region. And it refused to answer to public concern.

We’re asking the court to send Interior back to the drawing board by vacating its decision to hold the Lease Sale and its environmental analysis. The people and wildlife in Cook Inlet deserve better.

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