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Environment & Energy Report

Alaska Drilling Plan Envisions Walrus Stampedes, Climate Impacts

June 27, 2020, 12:00 PM

Climate change is forcing walruses to forage for food closer to Alaska’s Arctic coastline, gathering by the thousands along the shoreline as the sea ice from which they hunt vanishes in open waters.

But there, noise from industrial activity “may trigger massive stampedes” as the walruses flee into the water, trampling each other to death amid the chaos.

That’s the scene painted by the Bureau of Land Management itself in explaining the affects on wildlife, climate, and the environment of its plan to open an Indiana-sized region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to new oil and gas development.

“They admit this could have previously unheard-of impacts on these species to the extreme of walrus stampedes,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the National Audubon Society. “I don’t think that’s ever been in an environmental impact statement before.”

Environmental groups said Friday they expect to challenge the plan in court after it is finalized, in part because the public is not being invited to comment on the BLM’s vision for oil drilling in the NPR-A, which is more expansive than outlined in an earlier draft.

The plan, published Thursday, is set to be finalized within 30 days.

Environmental groups have fought development on Alaska’s North Slope in the past, and “will be back in court to defend the Arctic against this ill-advised plan,” said Earthjustice attorney Rebecca Noblin.

‘Environmentally Responsible Approach’

The NPR-A, a vast region of Arctic tundra on Alaska’s Arctic Coastal Plain west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is home to Native communities dependent on the region’s wildlife for subsistence, and harbors rich habitat for caribou, snowy owls, cliff-nesting raptors, snow geese, and polar bears.

The Trump administration plans to open 82% of the NPR-A to fossil fuel development, vastly expanding on a 2013 Obama administration plan that would have kept 48% of the reserve closed to development while protecting sensitive wildlife habitat.

The plan represents “an environmentally responsible approach to leasing and development” that is also respectful to Alaska Natives’ traditional uses of the land, BLM spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters said Friday.

But the greenhouse gas emissions produced from vast new oil fields would be 96% higher than those from NPR-A oil development under the 2013 plan, the BLM says.

Legality Questioned

Whether the plan is legal is unclear, but National Environmental Policy Act practitioners say courts will scrutinize agency actions that increase environmental harm without a full analysis or opportunity for the public to comment.

“Pulling a more environmentally damaging alternative out of the hat at the last minute is flatly inconsistent with NEPA’s public disclosure and public participation requirements, and we expect the courts to agree,” said Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The BLM created the final plan based on public input and “stakeholder consultation,” Ellis-Wouters said, when asked about BLM’s level of confidence that the plan would withstand court scrutiny.

“Agencies have to be prepared to demonstrate that the environmental review process and public comment opportunities on environmental reviews included all impacts reasonably to be expected from the final decision,” said Thomas Jensen, a senior NEPA practitioner in Washington, D.C., who had not yet reviewed the NPR-A plan Friday.

Broad Impacts Expected

Oil and gas development has been occurring for decades on Alaska’s North Slope, but until recently, much of the region outside of existing oil fields has had restrictions on development.

The NPR-A was set aside for oil development when it is needed, and the industry has proven for 40 years that it can safely develop oil there, said Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

“I think if you look at some of the populations of animals in that region, they are strong and healthy, " she said, adding that the BLM plan is a “fair balance” between conservation and development.

But the Trump administration’s plans are coming at a time when climate change, caused by fossil fuel use, is warming the region faster than any other on the globe.

At maximum build-out the new oil field could produce 500,000 barrels of oil per day and be responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 1% of total U.S. emissions in 2018, or about 63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, according to BLM estimates.

And the BLM’s plan shows new drilling there will kill more wildlife, including migratory birds. The administration has just drafted a rule that would allow oil companies that accidentally kill birds to avoid fines under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Polar Bears, Eagles

Other effects of widespread oil and gas development the BLM outlines in its analysis include:

  • Polar bears could die if they do not escape their dens before oil and gas seismic survey trucks run over them;
  • Air pollution from oil development is expected to combine with smoke from climate change-driven wildfires in the Arctic to degrade air quality in the region;
  • The industry could remove large amounts of water from Arctic lakes, destroying bird and fish habitat, killing fish, and eliminating a source of food for birds;
  • Power lines could electrocute raptors and other birds;
  • Oil spills may kill polar bears and other wildlife;
  • Eagles, which are attracted to oil and gas operations as they migrate, may die as they collide with vehicles and industry structures; and
  • There may be a “widespread” inability for some birds to nest, leading to their deaths.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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