Watt’s Oil Lease Plan Challenged: Natives, Environmentalists Join States in Suit

A coalition of environmental groups, the North Slope Borough, Cenaliulriit (the Yukon-Kuskokwim Coastal Resource Service Area Board), and the state of California joined the Hammond administration July 22, 1982, in a suit against Interior Secretary James Watt’s five-year offshore oil and gas leasing schedule.

The suit asks that the court reject Watt’s lease program because it violates Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) requirements to strike a balance between potential for oil and gas discoveries and potential harm to coastal area.

Watt was reported to say that he anticipated the legal challenges, and though he lost a related action last year, predicted the courts and Congress would uphold his program. He finalized his new plan on 21 July 1982, the day before the new petitions were filed, making only slight changes despite opposition from the states of Alaska, California, and Massachusetts.

Under the new lease schedule, close to one billion acres off virtually the entire U.S. coastline will be considered for lease to the oil industry in the next five years. After oil companies identify the most desirable tracts, the Secretary will decide which tracts to eliminate and which to lease. Of 41 lease sales scheduled in the plan, 16 tracts are in Alaskan waters.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Joining Alaska, California, and the North Slope Borough were Cenaliulriit; the Natural Resources Defense Council; Friends of the Earth; the Sierra Club; Trustees for Alaska; the National Wildlife Federation; the National Audubon Society; and the Conservation Law Foundation of New England.

Hammond: Postpone Leases of Frontier Areas

In a statement released 21 July, Hammond said the state is “not categorically opposed” to oil drilling off Alaska and supports most of the 16 Alaska sales. But, he said, the possibility of leasing 557 million acres off Alaska — more than half the nationwide total — places an “unfair burden” on the state.

He said the state is worried primarily about potential damage to highly productive fisheries, other marine life and the state’s coastal environment. He said the new lease schedule allows entry into seven so-called frontier areas, previously closed to oil drilling, where conditions such as offshore pack ice will present new operating hazards.

Specifically, the state is asking for delays on what it calls the “premature” timing of five sales scheduled for frontier areas: Norton Basin (Nov. 1982); St. George Basin near Bristol Bay (Feb. 1983); Barrow Arch (Feb. 1985 and Feb. 1987); and the North Aleutian Basin (Apr. 1985).

“I believe leasing in these basins is premature without completion of coastal management planning, better information on the biological and physical environment and technical constraints to assure that oil development occurs only where the industry has proven it has the means to do so safely,” Hammond said.

According to Lori Adams of the state’s Attorney General’s Office, the filing of the petitions for review is an extension of an earlier suit filed against the five-year plan proposed by Cecil Andrus in 1980. The state amended its suit in 1981 after Secretary Watt proposed the current accelerated schedule that added five new sales off Alaska.

On 6 October 1981, the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals remanded the program back to the Secretary for revisions on the grounds that it violated Sec. 18 of the Amended OCS Lands Act of 1978. The schedule failed to evaluate the marine productivity and environmental sensitivity of the areas offered.

Shortly before the state won the case in October, Watt had agreed to honor Hammond’s requests to delete a lease sale scheduled for the North Aleutian Basin and subsequently made some changes in the timing of proposed Alaskan sales. But the revisions did not go far enough to placate the plaintiffs involved.

Watt’s “Fire Sale”

Plaintiffs in the case contend that Watt’s revised five-year schedule is even more defective than the earlier schedule. Dave Benton, of Friends of the Earth in Anchorage, contends that the amount of acreage now being considered is too vast and will make it impossible for the government to adequately assess environmental dangers. “What Watt is doing,” Benton said, “Is offering the whole continental shelf of Alaska up for sale in the next five years. Under the Andrus schedule, the largest offering was three million acres. Under the Watt schedule, they are going to have to come up with an EIS for sales as large as 50 million acres. Under the old program, we had tract-by-tract evaluation. Now we will have area wide evaluations.

“The Beaufort Sea lease sale under Andrus two years ago was about 500,000 acres. Sale 71 in the Beaufort Sea, to take place this September, will be 1.8 million acres. The two other Beaufort Sea sales, scheduled for June 1984 and June 1986, will cover the whole Beaufort Sea (called Diapir Field), from Barrow to the Canadian border, and will be from 15 to 20 million acres. “Watt is having a one-time only fire sale,” Benton said, “and because of the enormous areas involved, low bids are expected that will deprive the government of billions of dollars in revenue. This is aggravated by the government’s new plan to discontinue its own independent assessment of the value of the tracts for sale. We are going to contest the economics of the schedule — the people will not get their money’s worth for the resource.”

The state also opposes the proposed size of the lease offerings, the new “streamlined methods for selected tracts, procedures that cut in half the planning time for lease sales, and the replacement of so-called “site specific” impact studies with area wide regional studies. Plaintiffs have pointed out that funds for environmental impact studies have been drastically cut back, even though the areas planned for leases are four times as large as in the earlier schedule, and the time frame is cut in half. Also, industry can bid all over the place in these wide areas, making management and monitoring much more difficult.

Several members of Congress are also perturbed by Watt’s accelerated lease schedule and plan to introduce legislation to overturn it. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass), was reported in theAnchorage Daily News, as saying Watt’s program “lacks any sense of compromise, lacks any concern for the environment, and lacks any appreciation of the impact on affected coastal states.” In the same report, Watt labeled the congressional attack “political posturing.”

Because of the time involved in coordinating the arguments of the petitioners, the briefs for the case will not be filed before October. A decision is expected late this year or early next year.