ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A federal judge Monday halted this week's oil-lease sale of 5.6 million acres off the Alaskan coast by the federal government, saying the U.S. Interior Department did not adequately study the effect of oil exploration on people who rely on hunting and fishing to survive.
U.S. District Judge James von der Heydt then issued a second ruling allowing the Interior Department to accept oil company bids today while government lawyers seek an emergency order from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowing the sale to proceed on Wednesday as planned.
The tracts off Alaska's southwestern coast are thought to contain $15-billion worth of oil and gas. Their sale has been opposed by Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield, environmentalists, fishing groups and other coastal states.
"I'm very pleased that the judge gave us the first round of what might be several rounds of opinions," Sheffield said.
Although there were nearly 50 parties to the litigation, it was the arguments made by three remote Alaskan villages populated by Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts that stopped the federal lease sale.
Lawyers for the villages of Akutan, Nelson Lagoon and Togiak argued that the oil-lease sale would jeopardize the wildlife they need for survival, and von der Heydt agreed, saying that the Interior Department probably violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Act by not holding hearings on whether the villagers' subsistence life style would be affected.
Federal officials had acknowledged a "possibility" that oil activity may restrict native subsistence life styles. The judge ruled that "threat" to subsistence was sufficient to call off the lease sale.
Lawyers for the villages were ecstatic at the ruling.
The "violation is crystal clear," said attorney Heather Grahame. "It's unquestionable that these people could not survive without subsistence. This decision is critical for all natives. It's a critical decision for the subsistence way of life.
"Subsistence is a quaint anachronism for some people, but it is a way of life for our clients," Grahame said.
States Offer Support
Five states--California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington and Texas--filed briefs last week supporting Alaska in its bid to stop or delay the sale. Oregon and North Carolina have also made their support known, Sheffield said.
"The federal government and the oil industry may not be so interested in Bristol Bay, but in winning this one so they can go into other areas in other states," Sheffield said.
He said Bristol Bay had a low potential for oil and gas when compared with the bay's value as a fishery. The bay has the world's largest run of red salmon, and fishing is a billion-dollar-a-year industry there, employing 10,000 people.
A spokesman for Amoco Production Co., one of the oil companies planning to bid on the lease sale, said he was disappointed with the decision but refused further comment. "We'll have to take a look at it," said Wayne Smith, the company's district manager.