Groups sue for information on Arctic refuge lease sale

An Alaska Native organization and three environmental groups sued the U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday, claiming its agencies withheld information regarding preparations for the sale of oil and gas leases in the massive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The lawsuit filed in Anchorage claims the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not provide public information in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The groups sought information on an application by a company to conduct three-dimensional seismic exploration using 90,000-pound vibrator trucks and mobile camps that could disturb denning polar bears.

The groups also requested information regarding Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's order to limit an environmental review to one year and 300 pages unless an agency requested an exemption.

The requests also targeted agency consultations with a joint U.S.-Canada advisory board on the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates between the two countries and uses the coastal plain of the refuge for calving.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the plain holds 10.4 billion barrels of oil.

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Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email that the department could not comment on pending litigation.

The four plaintiffs — the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife and The Wilderness Society — object to the planned leasing later this year in the refuge in northeast Alaska.

Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich'in group, said its members need to know what agencies are reviewing while making decisions about industrial operations on land considered sacred by her group.

Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League, said the Trump administration avoids transparency in order to hide routine quashing of dissent and suppression of scientific concerns.

"It doesn't want the public to know that serious, science-based concerns exist over the impact that drilling will have on Arctic land and wildlife," she said.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1960 during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Congress in 1980 expanded it to nearly the size of South Carolina with the provision that 2,300 square miles of the coastal plain be studied for natural resources.

Along with being a home for polar bears and caribou, the refuge includes nesting grounds for migratory birds from all 50 states.

Alaska elected officials for decades pushed to open up the coastal plain to drilling and finally succeeded in 2017 as part of a tax measure backed by President Donald Trump.

The law requires at least two major lease sales over the next decade to raise revenue for a tax cut. Republican proponents projected at least $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years, a claim that environmental groups say is wildly optimistic.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the Interior Department to deliver the information sought by the groups.

Correction: This story has been updated to say the lawsuit was filed Wednesday, not Tuesday.

Dan Joling, Associated Press

Dan Joling is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Anchorage.