9th Circuit Court of Appeals denies challenge to Northstar oil development

By Maureen Clark Associated Press Writer
Thursday September 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a challenge to the development of the Northstar oil field in the Beaufort Sea. 

The environmental group Greenpeace and a group of North Slope Natives had argued that the environmental impact statement for the project was inadequate. The group also said BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. did not have an adequate oil spill response plan. 

In its ruling Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit said the impact statement “reasonably documented the environmental effects of Northstar.” The panel denied a request to review the Interior Department’s approval of the project. 

The judges dismissed the group’s complaint about the adequacy of BP’s oil spill response plan, saying that was an issue for U.S. District Court, not the appellate court. 

Jenna App, the lawyer who argued the case for Greenpeace, said she was surprised at the speed with which the court ruled and disappointed with the decision. The court heard arguments in the case in Anchorage just last month. 

“We had obviously hoped for a lot better,” she said. 

BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said the decision was not unexpected. 

“The Northstar project is one that has undergone a tremendous amount of scrutiny by the regulatory agencies here in Alaska, both local, state and federal and we were confident that their decisions would stand up to judicial scrutiny,” Chappell said. 

The 176 million-barrel Northstar field lies primarily beneath the Beaufort Sea and is the first offshore oil project in the Alaska Arctic. Drilling would take place on an island, six miles offshore and oil would be carried to shore through a six-mile-long pipeline. Production at Northstar is expected to begin in November. 

Greenpeace filed the lawsuit nearly two years ago on behalf of Natives who fear an oil spill at the site could hurt the marine mammals they depend upon for subsistence. 

Greenpeace and the Native group complained that the Minerals Management Service didn’t collect data on the effects of an oil spill from the Northstar site. Instead, the federal agency used data from an oil spill risk analysis done prior to the August 1998 Beaufort Sea oil lease sale in approving the impact statement. 

But the court said that the data was relevant and yielded a useful analysis of the extent to which spilled oil would spread under the least favorable conditions. 

The lawsuit also charged that the EIS didn’t adequately analyze cumulative impacts of the project, including effects on air quality, vegetation, subsistence and the use of fresh water from lakes to build ice roads. 

The court found that the study was adequate and reasonable. 

Greenpeace campaigner Melanie Duchin said her group would look at other options to stop the Northstar Development. 

“We still are very interested in stopping this project for a number of reasons, from global warming to subsistence to the very real threat of a spill,” Duchin said.