North Slope village tribal government sues over ConocoPhillips’ drilling plans

Nuiqsut in June 2018. The village is near a growing number of oil developments in the western Arctic. (Photo: Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The tribal government for a North Slope village near a growing number of oil projects is suing the federal government over its approval of ConocoPhillips’ plans to drill more wells nearby. The complaint was submitted Thursday in federal court.

Along with five environmental groups, the Native Village of Nuiqsut is challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ exploratory drilling program this winter in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“The impacts outweigh the benefits and don’t address the concerns of the community, so we’re filing this lawsuit to get the impacts and concerns fully analyzed for responsible development,” said Native Village of Nuiqsut tribal administrator Martha Itta. “We’re trying to fully understand and adapt to the fast-paced changes of our environment and impacts from being surrounded by the drilling rigs and oil industry.”

ConocoPhillips has already started this winter’s drilling program and plans to complete six to eight wells. If successful, the lawsuit could require the federal government to perform a tougher environmental review process for future oil exploration activities in NPR-A.

The groups argue BLM should have completed a full environmental impact statement before approving Conoco’s plans. In December, BLM completed an environmental assessment, a less involved version of an environmental review, and determined Conoco’s drilling program would have “no new significant impacts.”

The groups disagree, saying ConocoPhillips’s drilling plans threaten caribou that migrate near the village. People in Nuiqsut rely heavily on subsistence hunting.

The environmental groups that are also involved in the lawsuit are the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

In a statement, the environmental groups said the federal government “acted irresponsibly and illegally by allowing this escalation and intrusion of industrial activity into this area without even the pretense of meaningful analysis of the impacts of this action or consideration of less harmful alternatives.”

BLM completed an overarching environmental impact statement for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in 2013. The Trump administration is now re-doing that plan and could potentially open up more land in NPR-A to oil development.

ConocoPhillips already operates several drill sites and an oil processing facility not far from Nuiqsut. The company has made significant oil discoveries nearby in recent years.

Nuiqsut’s village corporation, Kuukpik Corporation, said in a statement it “continues to support balanced and environmentally responsible, feasible development.”

Because the litigation is pending, both BLM and ConocoPhillips declined to comment.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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