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May 13, 2009 – Lawsuit to Challenge Government Plan for Coal-fired Power Plants and Destructive Land Management in Nevada

DIRTY ENERGY DEVELOPMENT

For more than a century, irresponsible oil and gas drilling practices on public lands and in public waters have taken a serious toll on the environment, ecosystems, and animals — as well as human health. Oil and gas exploration directly disturbs wildlife, destroys precious habitat, and can result in catastrophic oil spills as well as dangerous blowouts that kill people, ignite fires, and contaminate surface drinking water. Roads built for drilling increase human activity in formerly undisturbed areas and can cause increased poaching, roadkill, and human-caused fires; they can also promote the entry of exotic species that outcompete and devour native flora and fauna. And of course, the ultimate result of oil and gas development is fossil fuel consumption, which pollutes our air and water and contributes to the global warming that threatens us all.

OIL EXPLORATION IN THE ARCTIC

Alaska ’s north coast and the ocean waters adjoining it are home to numerous threatened and endangered animals. The coastal plain of the Western Arctic Reserve provide critical denning areas for polar bears, and the Beaufort Sea is habitat for not only polar bears but bowhead whales, spectacled eiders, and other species newly imperiled by global warming. Sadly, this seasonally frozen area is also severely threatened by oil development.

We’ve been working to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 2001, when we forced the Bush administration to release information about the impacts of Arctic Refuge oil drilling on polar bears. Still, lobbyists and government agencies continue to push for destructive Arctic oil and gas drilling.

While the Arctic Refuge itself has to date been spared from oil-industry assaults, the sensitive habitats and wilderness-quality lands of the Western Arctic Reserve have not been so lucky. The largest unprotected wilderness in the United States, comprised of more than 23 million mostly-untouched acres — including Teshekpuk Lake, one of the country’s most important wetlands — the Reserve is home to numerous imperiled species, including the spectacled and Steller’s eiders and yellow-billed loons. In the past decade over half of the Reserve has been opened to oil and gas leasing. In 2006, the Center and our partners won a lawsuit that successfully blocked leasing plans in the Teshekpuk Lake area . However, the administration is once again seeking to open this important area up for leasing, and further litigation is likely.

The waters off the Arctic coast of Alaska are also under assault. In 2007, over the objections of the Center, a coalition of Alaska Native and environmental groups, and its own scientists, the Bush administration approved a plan by Shell Oil to drill in the Beaufort Sea offshore of the Arctic Refuge. The Center and allies challenged Shell’s plan, contending that it was approved with inadequate environmental review and placed polar bears and bowhead whales at unnecessary risk. Fortunately, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with us, issuing an injunction in August, 2007 stopping Shell until the court issues a final decision in the case. But the long-term well-being of Arctic ecosystems is far from secure: in June 2007, the administration approved a five-year plan to allow offshore oil and gas leasing in almost the entirety of the polar bear’s Beaufort and Chukchi sea habitat. The day this plan went into effect, the Center filed suit to overturn it, and we’ve also filed a case against regulations that give the oil industry a blank check to harass polar bears in the Beaufort Sea.

Besides directly challenging industry plans and projects, the Center protects imperiled Arctic animals from oil and gas development by working for their Endangered Species Act protection. Currently, we’re engaged in listing efforts for the polar bear, the ribbon seal, the Pacific walrus, and the yellow-billed loon.

OIL AND GAS DRILLING IN LOS PADRES

From the giant redwoods and craggy peaks of Big Sur to the poppy fields and pinyon pines north of Los Angeles, the Los Padres National Forest contains some of the most breathtaking scenery in California. Stretching over almost 2 million acres of the state’s coastal mountains, this beautiful area is both a popular site for human recreation and essential habitat for countless species — including the highly endangered California condor.

But Los Padres’ natural beauty and biological integrity are also severely threatened by oil and gas development. Currently being drilled under 22 oil-drilling leases covering 14, 618 acres, since 2004 the national forest has seen nearly a dozen significant spills — including a massive January 2007 spill in which at least 200 gallons of oil and 2,100 gallons of wastewater were released into Tar Creek, a tributary of the designated “wild and scenic” Sespe Creek that runs along the border of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Other spills have decimated habitat along Four Forks Creek — another Sespe Creek tributary — and Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, another of Los Padres’ vital condor havens.

Despite these spills, the Forest Service continues to move forward with its Bush administration-prompted 2005 decision to open the national forest to devastating new oil and gas leases. Under the new plan, more than 52,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties would be subject to new drilling projects and more than 4,200 acres would be affected by new infrastructure. The plan would allow surface drilling adjacent to three wilderness areas and slant drilling beneath three creeks designated or proposed for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, as well as calling for new surface drilling next to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. In April 2007, the Center joined with Defenders of Wildlife and Los Padres National Forest Watch in a lawsuit contesting that the new plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

LIQUIFIED NATURAL GAS DEVELOPMENT IN MEXICO

In 2005, Chevron proposed to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Baja California less than 700 yards from the Coronado Islands, which are home to 10 species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world and provide nesting habitat for six threatened or endangered bird species, including the rare Xantus’s murrelet. To challenge the destructive facility, the Center joined with other U.S. and Mexican conservation organizations to file a formal petition with an international environmental commission established under the North American Free Trade Agreement. In early 2007, the commission ordered an investigation into whether its approval of the “energy maquiladora” violated environmental laws, and Chevron abandoned its plans soon after.

OIL SHALE AND TAR SANDS DEVELOPMENT ON PUBLIC LANDS

In December 2007, the Bureau of Land Management proposed to open up almost 2 million acres of public lands in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to commercial leasing of oil shale and tar sands for a nonconventional type of fossil-fuel energy production. The next year, the agency made clear it would amend resource-management plans in all three states to allow oil-shale development without granting a say in the matter to either the public or the governors of the affected states. Despite opposition from two governors, numerous congressmen, and environmentalists everywhere, in November 2008 the Bush administration published final regulations for commercial oil leasing and development: so-called “rules of the road” for a program that isn’t even yet commercially viable.

New projects allowed under the Bureau’s plan would not only result in tremendous energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions — they would also harm countless species and their public-lands habitat.

New projects allowed under the Bureau’s plan would not only result in tremendous energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions — they would also harm countless species and their public-lands habitat. At the outset of 2009, the Center joined a coalition of groups in filing two suits showing that the Bush-era Bureau broke the law — first, by amending the management plans in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming without giving the public a chance to appeal the decision; and second, by drafting regulations for a commercial oil-shale program without sufficiently addressing environmental impacts. In February, the Department of the Interior announced it would offer a second round of research, development, and demonstration leases for oil shale on public lands in Colorado and Utah and withdraw the Bush administration’s proposal for expanded leases.

GAS DEVELOPMENT IN ROADLESS AREAS

To stop the construction of a devastating natural gas pipeline in Colorado roadless areas, in early 2008 the Center and allies filed a landmark lawsuit charging the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management with violating the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The construction of the 25-mile Bull Mountain gas pipeline, which would require more than eight miles of new roads in three separate roadless areas in western Colorado, would clearly go against the 2001 law’s prohibition of road building on designated roadless lands in U.S. national forests. Our suit is meant not only to conserve Colorado’s pristine public lands, but also to serve as a national test case for future interpretation of the Roadless Rule.

COAL ON PUBLIC LANDS

Using public lands for development of dirty fossil fuels like coal poses a significant and swiftly increasing threat to our natural heritage. Coal mining comes with a steep environmental price, dramatically altering the landscape, causing erosion, degrading wildlife habitat, and leading to the deterioration of drinking water. These impacts are magnified by the transportation and combustion of coal — from the trains, trucks, and tractors used to transport coal to polluting power plants, all of which heavily contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and climate change.

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Contact: Amy Atwood