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Lawsuit targeting Arctic drilling challenges Biden administration to think long-term on climate

The lawsuit claims the administration failed to consider the environmental impact of an oil exploration program.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — The Biden administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions in allowing an exploratory drilling project to move forward in Alaska’s Western Arctic, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by Earthjustice.

The nonprofit environmental law organization filed the suit in United States District Court of Alaska on behalf of Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace Inc.

“We are beyond frustrated with Biden’s rubber stamping of Big Oil’s drilling in Alaska’s vulnerable and wild places,” Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth, said in a media statement. “Unfortunately, the administration failed to see how this unlawful decision throws yet another carbon bomb at our rapidly warming planet. We hope the court system helps ensure that the federal government fully upholds our bedrock environmental laws before approving such harmful activities.”

The lawsuit argues that, when issuing a drilling permit to Emerald House’s Peregrine oil and gas exploration program in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the Bureau of Land Management’s required Environmental Assessments did not include an adequate discussion or analysis of the project’s impacts on climate change.

Because this is a violation of NEPA, the plaintiffs argued to vacate the initial decision approving the drilling program, the subsequent amendment to the right-of-way and an additional application for a permit to drill, as well as an enjoinment of further exploration activities until BLM has complied with NEPA.

"You can't fight climate change and expand fossil fuel projects in the Arctic at the same time,” Tim Donaghy, research manager for Greenpeace USA, said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas emissions calculator, extracting and burning the quantity of oil that could be found at the Peregrine site would be the carbon equivalent of emissions from 173 coal-fired power plants operating for a year.

"We must follow the dictates of science and justice. President Biden has a chance to build on his recent climate wins with policies to phase out fossil fuel production, and ensure an energy transition that benefits workers and communities," Donaghy added.

Emerald House, a subsidiary of Australian petroleum firm 88 Energy submitted the plans after drilling an initial oil well labeled “Merlin-1” in the winter of 2020. The company told investors it believed the remote and undeveloped public-lands area where it intends to drill could contain 1.6 billion barrels of petroleum.

“If that proves true, extracting and burning that total volume would release 645 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to expert analysis,” Earthjustice’s press release states.

Representatives for 88 Energy did not respond to questions in time for this story.

The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within Interior Department. It is department policy to not comment on pending litigation.

The 36-page complaint cites several studies and resulting statements and conclusions reached on the impact of climate change on the planet and its human and wildlife populations.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that the unprecedented increase in Earth’s temperatures is caused by fossil fuel combustion and climate change is among the top threats to global health in the 21st century,” it reads, among multiple other statements in support of the suit.

“The Peregrine program could open the door to even further industrialization of this sensitive area, threatening our climate, as well as critical wildlife habitat. We will continue fighting in court to ensure that it never moves forward.” Sierra Club Lands Water Wildlife Campaign Director Dan Ritzman, said.

Earthjustice attorney Ian Dooley echoed his clients’ statements.

“We are in the middle of a climate crisis that is causing massive environmental disruptions and harm to communities around the globe, yet the Trump and Biden administrations have moved this exploration program forward without any meaningful analysis of how its greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to climate change,” said Dooley.

“Continuing down this path will thwart any meaningful progress toward addressing climate change, so we’re going to court to force BLM to rethink its decision to allow this fossil fuel proposal to move forward.”

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