9th Circuit denies Greenpeace challenge to Northstar oil development

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- 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 approved by the Minerals Management Service was inadequate. The group also said BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. did not have an adequate oil spill response plan for the project.

In a ruling handed down Wednesday, the court said that the Environmental Impact Statement ''reasonably documented the environmental effects of Northstar.'' The three-judge panel denied a request to review the Department of Interior's approval of the project.

The judges dismissed the group's complaint about the adequacy of BP's oil spill response plan, saying the U.S. District Court, not the 9th Circuit, had jurisdiction under the federal Oil Pollution Act to review the spill response plan.

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. App said she had not yet met with her clients to determine whether they would appeal the project's oil spill response plan to the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

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.

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 Environmental Impact Statement for the project didn't provide an adequate analysis of the cumulative impacts of the project, including impacts on air quality, vegetation, subsistence and the use of fresh water from lakes to build ice roads.

But 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.

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