A lawsuit filed in late February in U.S. District Court in Anchorage challenges an oil industry project permit that seven residents of an Arctic village feel poses a threat to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. The case challenges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approval of an oil development project involving a CD-5 drilling project north of Nuiqsut.
It is the latest in a growing number of court battles over concern that oil and gas and mining development could adversely affect habitat critical to fisheries and wildlife.
Proponents of such development have maintained that they must meet critical criteria to be permitted and that their projects can work in harmony with habitat.
The corps issued a permit to ConocoPhillips in December 2011 to fill nearly 60 acres of wetlands and other waters for the CD-5 project, on the eastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The permit allows ConocoPhillips to build through traditional fishing and hunting areas multiple bridges. These include a 1,405-foot bridge across the Nigliq Channel and a six-mile-long road extending from the CD-5 drilling pad to the existing Alpine Satellite drilling locations on the Colville River Delta.
Plaintiff Jonah Nukapigak said oil and gas drilling in the Colville River Delta has already had major impact on the way of life at Nuiqsut, an Inupiat Eskimo community of some 420 residents. "We are surrounded by drilling projects, and we are having to travel farther and farther to hunt for caribou because they are being driven away from our traditional hunting areas.
Trustees for Alaska attorney Brian Litmans, who filed the lawsuit Feb. 28 for the Nuiqsut residents, said that ConocoPhillips has not done any work on the project.
The corps found originally that the best alternative was to not have a pipeline exposed above the channel because of fear of a catastrophic spill if the pipeline ruptured, he said. Then the corps opined that with a road they can detect small leaks along the route and they feel that being able to respond to small leaks outweighs their previous concerns, he said.
However, Litmans said, the corps has not explained why the second decision outweighs the first decision.
The Colville River Delta is the largest and most complex delta in the Arctic Coastal Plain. Some 80 species of birds, 20 species of fish and the Teshekpuk Lake and Central Arctic caribou herds live in or rely on the Delta. Over half of the subsistence fish harvested by Nuiqsut residents annually are harvested from the Nigliq Channel.
The plaintiffs and the Center for Biological Diversity have serious concerns that an elevated pipeline over the Nigliq Channel risks a catastrophic oil spill that could flow into the Beaufort Sea, threatening bowhead whale and recently listed ringed and bearded seals.
"Any drilling in the Arctic, whether onshore or offshore, is risky, and in an era of rapid climate change we should be protecting these sensitive areas rather than opening them up to oil development," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Center is serving notice on the corps and the federal Bureau of Land Management of intent to sue over violations of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act related to the CD-5 Alpine Satellite Development within the NPR-A. The notice gives the corps and BLM 60 days to correct the violations to avoid a lawsuit.