Offshore Arctic Drilling Challenged in Federal Court

Trump administration approval of the first offshore oil drilling development in federal waters in the Arctic is being challenged in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The litigation was filed on Dec. 17 by environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of five conservation groups.
The appeal contends that artificial drilling island and underwater pipeline for Hilcorp Alaska’s Liberty presents a risk of spills in the Beaufort Sea and threatens polar bears and Arctic communities. As climate change continues, research has shown that more fish species are moving north. The Liberty project involves construction of a nine-acre island with a 24-acre footprint in about 20 feet of water and a 5.6-mile pipeline under Arctic waters to transport the oil to pipelines onshore.

Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the five plaintiffs represented by Earthjustice, said the conservation groups have a right to petition the appeals court for a review under provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which provides guidelines for implementing an OCS oil and gas exploration and development program.

“Liberty is the bad step down a very dangerous path,” Monsell said. “An oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up in a region already stressed by climate change.”

Construction of the Liberty project has already been delayed by a lack of stable shoreline sea ice in the rapidly warming Arctic region. Federal officials noted this month that the past five years have been the warmest on record.

Concerns about Hilcorp’s track record rose last year when the company’s underwater gas pipeline in Alaska’s Cook Inlet leaked for nearly four months while Hilcorp said the presence of sea ice prevented its repair, and earlier this month a Hilcorp contract oil worker died in a North Slope accident.

Hilcorp officials were not immediately available for comment.

Parties to the appeal, in addition to the Center for Biological Diversity, are Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife and Pacific Environment.

The plaintiffs already have a scheduling order from the appeals court. Opening briefs are due in March and all briefing will conclude at the beginning of May. The court will hear arguments and should take a few months to rule.