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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Suit Seeks to Block Oil Search Off Alaska

By FELICITY BARRINGER
Published: February 1, 2008

A coalition of environmental organizations and Inupiaq native groups filed suit in federal court in Anchorage on Thursday to force the Interior Department to do a new analysis of the environmental consequences of oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea, off northwestern Alaska.

The plaintiffs hope to stop plans to develop 29 million acres, which they argue could harm the endangered bowhead whale, a staple of subsistence hunting, and the polar bear, which is under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The current environmental assessment, the suit says, fails to adequately analyze the impact of the lease sale in the context of a warming climate. The assessment also “understates the potential impacts of oil and gas development,” including the risks of an oil spill, the suit says.

Plaintiffs include Point Hope, a native village; Point Hope City; and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, which comprises several villages. The environmental groups include the Alaska Wilderness League, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

The lease area in the Chukchi Sea, which Interior Department officials estimate has 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, is along the migratory path of the bowhead whale.

The sale of leases in the Chukchi Sea is scheduled to take place next week. While the lawsuit does not seek to block the sale, should the judge agree with the environmental and native groups that the original environmental assessment was flawed, any leases might be voided.

In a statement, Steve Oomittuk, the mayor of Point Hope City, using his group’s native name, said: “The people of Tikigaq have hunted and depended on the animals that migrate through the Chukchi Sea for thousands of years. This is our garden, our identity, our livelihood.”

For the companies already using the Trans-Alaska pipeline, however, a new source of oil would forestall the day when the flow of petroleum from Alaska would not be sufficient to keep the pipeline working.

Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said her office would have no comment on pending litigation.

An earlier sale of oil and gas leases in the Beaufort Sea, to the east of the Chukchi lease area, ended with Royal Dutch Shell winning the right to exploit the vast reserves believed to lie in that area.

However, a different coalition of native and environmental groups sued to overturn the Interior Department’s decision to approve Shell’s three-year exploration and drilling program. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, has enjoined further activity by Shell pending the resolution of that lawsuit.

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