ANCHORAGE— Conservation groups Monday filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s approval of the first offshore oil drilling development in federal Arctic waters. Hilcorp Alaska received approval in October to build and operate the controversial Liberty project, an artificial drilling island and underwater pipeline that risks oil spills in the sensitive Beaufort Sea and threatens polar bears and Arctic communities.
Today’s lawsuit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, and Pacific Environment, all represented by Earthjustice. They say the Liberty approval violated federal laws and ignores the causes and effects of climate change. The project is in the heart of polar bear habitat.
“We can’t let this reckless administration open the Arctic to offshore oil drilling. It threatens Arctic wildlife and communities and will only make climate chaos worse around the world,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Liberty is the bad step down a very dangerous path. An oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up in a region already stressed by climate change.”
Ironically, construction of the Liberty project has already been delayed by a lack of stable shoreline sea ice in the rapidly warming Arctic region. The past five years have been the hottest on record, the administration announced this month, as the Arctic heats up at twice the global warming rate. Climate change is driven by excessive fossil fuel consumption.
“When it rubber-stamped this project, the administration illegally failed to consider the consequences it will bring for imperiled polar bears. It misled the public about this project’s contribution to climate change. According to the agency’s fuzzy math, drilling for oil will actually reduce climate change,” said Rebecca Noblin, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “Nor did it account for climate-change impacts like permafrost melt, sea-ice melt and increasing storms that make this an exceedingly dangerous prospect and increase the potential for oil spills.”
The Liberty project involves construction of a nine-acre artificial island with a 24-acre footprint in about 20 feet of water and a 5.6-mile pipeline under Arctic waters to send the oil into onshore pipelines.
“In a rush to drill for oil in Alaska’s pristine Arctic coastlines, Donald Trump is flouting the law and endangering some of the most delicate coastlines in the world,” said Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth. “This project is just one in a series of giveaways to oil companies looking to enrich their CEOs and investors on America’s public lands and waters. Drilling for new oil off our shorelines and on our public lands, especially in the Arctic, puts the health of our children and their future on this planet into jeopardy.”
The Trump administration has proposed drastically expanding offshore oil leasing in the Arctic and other U.S. oceans and relaxing offshore drilling safety regulations adopted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The administration plans to offer another lease sale in the Beaufort Sea in 2019.
“The Liberty project must be stopped because it poses dangerous oil spill risk that threaten Arctic communities and subsistence activities. This danger is even more worrisome given Hilcorp’s appalling record of safety and environmental violations,” said Kevin Harun, Arctic program director at Pacific Environment. “As Alaskans and Americans, we need to stand up to the Trump Administration’s ill-conceived, slapped-together and fast-tracked proposal to open our Arctic waters to its moneyed friends in the oil industry.”
Concerns about Hilcorp’s ability to build and manage the project were heightened last year when its underwater gas pipeline in Alaska’s Cook Inlet leaked for nearly four months because the company said the presence of sea ice prevented its repair. Earlier this month, a Hilcorp contract oil worker died in an accident on Alaska’s North Slope and there was an oil spill from one of the company’s wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hilcorp has been the most heavily fined oil company in Alaska in recent years, with state regulators writing “disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp’s approach to its Alaska operations.”
“Polar bears and all Arctic wildlife are already under stress from climate change. Now the Trump administration is putting them at greater risk with their relentless efforts to open new areas to oil exploration,” said Jason Rylander, senior counsel with Defenders of Wildlife. “We cannot allow these sensitive marine environments to become sacrifice zones for the fossil fuel industry.”
“There is no such thing as safe Arctic drilling. It doesn’t matter if it’s Hilcorp or Shell trying to exploit the melting Arctic for profit – an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea would be impossible to clean up,” said Tim Donaghy, Greenpeace USA senior research specialist. “The latest climate science is crystal clear that we can no longer allow the expansion of the oil industry into new regions if we want to limit global warming to safe levels. The fate of the climate, Arctic wildlife, and communities in Alaska is too important to leave in the hands of a company with a questionable track record, and a reckless administration that doesn’t accept climate science.”