The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said it intends to sue the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) for insufficiently vetting the potential impacts of 88 Energy Ltd.’s Project Peregrine oil and gas development in Alaska on the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population.

“With only about 900 bears remaining, the Southern Beaufort Sea population is the most imperiled bear population in the world,” the nonprofit conservation group said. “Scientists have determined that the population cannot sustain any injuries or deaths from oil and gas activities.”

In a 60-day notice of intent to sue filed on Dec. 22, the CBD alleged that DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under former President Trump failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act in greenlighting the project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

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“The Trump administration approved the project just before leaving office, but the company needs the Biden administration’s approval to drill any new wells,” said the CBD. The nonprofit is seeking to immediately suspend operations and denying subsequent drilling permits at Peregrine.

Planning Second Appraisal Well

Currently in the appraisal phase, Peregrine is estimated to contain net mean prospective resources of 1.6 billion boe, according to an investor presentation in August by Australia-based 88 Energy. The company spudded the first appraisal well at Peregrine in the first quarter of 2021, and it plans to drill a second appraisal well in 1Q2022.

The 22 million-acre NPR-A is the largest tract of federally managed land in the United States. It contains ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow project, which was halted in August when a federal judge voided its BLM approval. DOI in June also suspended the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing program in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

“Every new oil well in the Arctic is another step toward the polar bear’s extinction,” said CBD’s Kristen Monsell, senior attorney. President Biden “should be phasing out oil and gas activity in the Arctic, not flouting key environmental laws to let oil companies search and drill for more oil in this beautiful, increasingly fragile ecosystem.”

The Peregrine project, for its part, “involves building snow and ice roads and air strips, near constant air and vehicle traffic, and other drilling-related activity,” the CBD said. “Noise pollution from these activities can stop polar bears from feeding, disrupt their movements or scare mothers and cubs from their dens. The project will also increase the greenhouse gas emissions driving the species toward extinction.”

The CBD cited recent studies projecting that polar bears in Alaska could be extinct by the middle of this century unless greenhouse gas pollution is immediately and aggressively reduced.

Policy toward exploration and production on federal lands and in federal waters has sparked rhetorical and legal clashes between the industry and the Biden administration. President Biden immediately paused federal lease sales upon taking office, and it took a court order for auctions to resume in November. 

Later that month, a DOI report on federal oil and gas leasing and permitting practices found “significant shortcomings” and proposed a series of “urgent fiscal and programmatic reforms.”

The American Petroleum Institute’s Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said the reforms would “increase costs on American energy development with no clear roadmap for the future of federal leasing.”