Environmental group threatens feds with lawsuit to halt drilling in NPR-A

A national environmental group is planning to sue the Interior Department to stop oil exploration work in a broad swath of northwest Alaska congressionally designated for the activity, citing risks to polar bears.

Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity on Dec. 22 filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Interior and Bureau of Land Management officials over alleged Endangered Species Act violations in the agencies’ approvals of 88 Energy’s exploration drilling in the southern portion of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“Continued oil and gas exploration and development is fundamentally incompatible with polar bear survival and recovery,” the notice states.

The 60-day notice, which is required before suing federal agencies over many regulating statutes, states that the authorizations for 88 Energy’s drilling program don’t include incidental take approvals for polar bears. The notice says the best way to fix the violations is to immediately order the company to stop work and not approve its drilling permit application for this winter. 88 Energy applied Dec. 4 with BLM for the permit to drill its Merlin-2 well.

Attorneys with the environmental group additionally contend that comprehensive scientific studies project most of the world’s polar bear populations, including the Southern Beaufort Sea population at the center of the lawsuit, will go extinct in the next century due to a loss of sea ice without aggressive actions to curb global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the center, 88 Energy’s planned five-year exploration drilling program is likely to impact bears in the area through noise and on-the-ground development associated with long-term industrial activities, which includes building more than 80 miles of ice roads each winter. Changes to this winter’s planned ice road route compared to last winter also add to the “amount of road constructed in potential polar bear denning habitat,” the notice states.

The Center for Biological Diversity intends to sue BLM if the agency doesn’t rectify the ESA problems, or at the very least consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to ensure that proper polar bear impact mitigation methods are implemented in the work and the proper incidental take authorizations are in place, according to the 10-page notice.

88 Energy has been exploring the southern edges of the North Slope for years, previously on state land. The small Australia-based operator has one of the largest lease-holdings on the Slope; 88 Energy holds rights to more than 440,000 net acres through its state and federal leases.

The company’s Merlin project in the NPR-A is near the legacy Umiat oil prospect in the southeastern corner of the federal reserve. The Umiat prospect, despite being long-known to hold oil, has not been developed, in large part because of its remote location far west of the Dalton Highway.

88 Energy is targeting the popular Nanushuk sand oil formations roughly 50 miles south of ConocoPhillips’ large Willow oil project largely based on Nanushuk formation discoveries. North Slope geologists have said the Nanushuk oil plays predominantly run north-south.

88 Energy expects to drill the Merlin-2 appraisal well starting in February. It is planned slightly east of the Merlin-1 well drilled early this year, which the company insists hit significant oil.

88 Energy leaders and a BLM headquarters press representative did not respond to questions in time for this story.

Also in the NPR-A, early fieldwork on the $8 billion Willow project was suspended via injunction by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last February after a group of Alaska Native and local environmental groups similarly sued BLM, in part over the agency’s polar bear-related ESA authorizations for the work. A U.S. District Court of Alaska judge then formally invalidated portions of the Willow environmental review over the summer, prompting the company and agency to begin working on revised plans and permits.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/29/2021 - 9:03am