Arctic Wildlife: A Regulator’s Dream

November 24, 2015 in Blog

This month, the Department of the Interior (DOI) published a blog post titled “9 animals that are feeling the impacts of climate change,” warning that these animals would be threatened with extinction “[i]f we don’t act on climate now.” Considering that most of the animals that DOI listed – the moose, salmon, snowshoe hares, American pikas, sea turtles, puffins, Alaskan caribou, piping plovers, and polar bears – and their related species are found in Alaska, DOI’s post represents an ominous forewarning for energy development in the Arctic, adding ever more uncertainty to an already complex and stifling regulatory regime that has repeatedly thwarted Arctic drilling – to no one’s benefit.

The language DOI used implies the threat of potentially listing these species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but doing so would carry negative implications for local communities that depend upon a subsistence lifestyle. As an Alaska Dispatch News article explains,

“With each potential new recruit to the Endangered Species Act, additional pressure is put on Alaska hunters, including those on the North Slope. The groups and individuals involved in the process are consumed with red tape, paperwork, and occasionally lawsuits.”

Robert Suydam, senior wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough, told the newspaper that these listings impose an “increasing burden on North Slope communities,” and he also questioned the methodology used in determining ESA listings:

“We’ve moved into a new era with the ESA, where the scientific models that are looking at potential effects are being used to make the decision. … Sometimes scientists don’t always get it right, not because of any ill intent. This new approach is a concern as well.”

Instead of listing species under the ESA, Suydam said that working closely with subsistence hunters and communities would be a better use of resources, and ultimately more informative in formulating “strategies that are meaningful.”

Furthermore, at a time when there are existing, and extensive, measures in place to protect animals and wildlife, DOI’s warning acts as another deterrent for oil and gas companies that would otherwise be interested in investing in the Arctic and local Alaskan communities.

Let’s take a quick look at the robust apparatus of federal, state, and local agencies (pg. 4-4) tasked with protecting animals and wildlife in the context of Arctic oil and gas exploration and development. These agencies include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the federal level; the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on the state level; and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission on the local level.

Because of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), these agencies – all federal agencies – are required to consider environmental impacts in their decision-making processes, in what is commonly referred to as the “NEPA review process.” NEPA review is required in every stage (pg. 4-5) of Arctic oil and gas development, from holding lease sales, to selecting sites, to preparing production plans.

For example, DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, before holding the 2008 Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sale, had to weigh the potential environmental impacts of oil and gas development on resources like fish, marine and coastal birds, and marine and terrestrial mammals. DOI’s decision to hold and subsequently affirm the lease sale reflects its determination that the environmental risks of Arctic drilling were manageable, and that the appropriate mitigation measures would be sufficient.

Below are a few examples – by no means a comprehensive survey – of the regulatory agencies charged with protecting animals and wildlife in the Arctic:

On the federal level, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages fish, wildlife, and natural habitats, and its NEPA review process evaluates whether proposed projects would inflict damage on fish and wildlife resources and determines whether mitigation measures are adequately developed.

As another example, the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) considers 31 potential biological impacts in the Alaska region, including biological diversity, direct and indirect effects on specific animal species, and the cumulative impacts of human activities over time. As required by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the NMFS protects all mammals and carefully evaluates any action that “has the potential to disturb a marine mammal” and its behavioral patterns, including breathing and feeding.

On the state level, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), which protects Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources, works with Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response on reviewing oil spill contingency plans and participating in spill drills and spill response.

On the local level, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), which has represented whaling communities since 1977, has worked successfully with the oil and gas industry for decades to develop mitigation measures that would avoid adverse impacts to bowhead whales, habitat, and hunting opportunities. Every year, AEWC holds meetings that bring together oil and gas companies and captains of subsistence whale hunting crews from 11 Alaskan coastal villages to evaluate planned oil and gas activities in relation to fall whale migration routes and fall subsistence whale hunting activities.

The resulting agreements between AEWC and oil and gas operators delineate how the planned exploration and development work can be coordinated and executed without interfering with the fall bowhead whale migration and the fall whale harvest. These agreements include specific restrictions on vessel movements and speeds and avoidance measures.

The AEWC considers this type of collaboration, which recognizes local residents and subsistence hunters as stakeholders and draws on the hunters’ ecosystem knowledge, “completely natural”:

“Since the mid-1980s, the Eskimo bowhead whale subsistence hunters, through their representative organization, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), and offshore oil and gas operators have worked together to address the challenge of managing offshore industrial development in a setting dominated by nutritionally and culturally vital bowhead whale subsistence hunting. For the Eskimo hunters, direct collaboration with offshore operators is completely natural.”

Because of these copious safeguards, local Alaskans have expressed confidence that oil and gas and Arctic animals “can live in harmony,” in the words of Jacob Adams, Sr., chief administrative officer of the North Slope Borough:

“We firmly believe that the oil and gas and our animals can live in harmony by ensuring that the oil and gas development is done in a manner that won’t affect the well-being of our subsistence resources.”

In Short

The involvement of multiple government bodies during each and every step of the Arctic energy development process already provides multiple layers of safeguards for the animals and wildlife in the region. DOI’s warning is just another step the federal government has taken to further discourage investment in the Arctic – to the detriment of Alaskans and Americans writ large, all while doing precious little for the species it is purportedly trying to protect.