Two additional lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. Interior Department over a plan to begin lease sales for oil drilling in the 1002 coastal plain area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this time by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, the Arctic Village Council, the Venetie Village Council and more than a dozen Lower 48 states.
Last month the Trump administration announced that it planned to open the entire 1.56 million acre coastal plain for oil exploration and development. This area — roughly the size of Delaware — accounts for about 8% of the 19.2 million acre refuge.
The announcement sparked immediate outcry from Indigenous rights groups, Alaska Native tribes and environmental justice organizations from across the state and country.
The first of the two most recent lawsuits, filed by the the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village
Council and Venetie Village Council, alleges the opening of the area violates Indigenous land rights.
“The Coastal Plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’aii Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole. The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving areas in the Coastal Plain,” said Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government First Chief Margorie Gemmill.
“Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people. This process must be stopped,” she said. “As tribal governments we will defend the rights of our people at all costs.”
The second lawsuit saw 15 Lower 48 states joining with the Gwich’in People, arguing that the Trump administration failed to take a “hard look” at the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and environmental impacts.
“In their rush to make this change for special interests, they cut corners,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.
Washington was joined by Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
These are the latest in a series of lawsuits filed over oil development plans in Northern Alaska since the August announcement that lease sales will begin in the area. The Gwich’in Nation filed a lawsuit last month that included complaints made under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act alleging Indigenous rights guaranteed under that federal act have been violated.
Another August lawsuit was filed by a group of 12 environmental rights groups seeking to block drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska.
Also last month, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern over possible human rights violations of the Gwich’in People in the quest to open the refuge for drilling.
Committee Chair Yanduan Li wrote in a letter to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Bremberg that the committee had received allegations that the oil and gas drilling plan for ANWR was done “without the free, prior and informed consent of and adequate consultation with Gwich’in indigenous peoples, despite the serious harm such extractive activities could allegedly cause.”
The letter, dated Aug. 7 but posted online more recently, asks the Trump administration for details on what measures were or were not taken to give the Gwich’in people informed consent about the plan, protect sacred sites and mitigate the impact of climate change from the development.
Oil exploration and development in both areas of Northern Alaska have been hotly contested for years and drawn staunch opposition from Indigenous people from the areas as well as environmental conservation groups and support from oil companies and many of Alaska’s politicians, including all three members of the current congressional delegation who worked to include the opening of ANWR in President Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
The Interior Department has signaled that lease sales could begin as soon as later this year.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.