The damage to wildlife habitat from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be permanent and, when coupled with the impacts of climate change, lead to bird extinctions, the Bureau of Land Management says in its plan to open the refuge to the oil industry.
The final plan, expected to be finalized sometime in the early fall, was released Sept. 12 and applies to about 1.5 million acres of the Arctic coastal plain in northeast Alaska. Congress mandated in 2017 that the Arctic refuge be leased for oil.
Impacts of oil and gas development on the Arctic tundra would be “long term or permanent,” and widely dispersed throughout the coastal plain, the plan says.
It adds that many species that nest on the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain “already are experiencing decreasing populations, and many could suffer catastrophic consequences from the effects of global climate change in one or more of their seasonal continental or even global habitats.
“These effects combined with development-related impacts across the ranges of many bird species may result in extinction during the 85-year scope of this analysis.”
Of four drilling scenarios the BLM considered, it settled on the option calling for the most development and least habitat protection.
BLM officials said Sept. 12 that the drilling plan strikes a balance between environmental protection and oil and gas development, but their plan itself shows what could be lost in that scenario.
Oil drilling in the refuge over the next 85 years coupled with the impacts of climate change would wipe out some bird species completely, the plan says.
Up to 69 of the 157 bird species found on the Arctic refuge coastal plain could go extinct because of drilling and climate change, the plan says.
Warmer temperatures brought about by climate change could improve habitat for geese, however, according to the plan.
Asked how the agency justifies permanent damage, Lesli J. Ellis-Wouters, communications director for the agency’s Alaska office, said Sept. 13 by email: “Striking an appropriate balance between resource development and protection of resources is the preferred alternative. It would be disingenuous to say that there would be no impact to the environment in a hypothetical resource development scenario.”
“Our job as land managers and authorized officer of an oil and gas leasing program is to ensure the least amount of impacts while allowing for responsible development of our natural resources, as mandated by public law,” Ellis-Wouters added.
An ‘Irreversible’ Cost
But the BLM is helping promote activities that will cause extinction, said Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska. Dawson previously worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and two other federal land agencies.
“The agency, under political pressure, is choosing to ignore their responsibility of proper management of our natural resources and instead is allowing politics to drive decision making that will have irreversible cost to the American public,” Dawson said.
In the plan, the BLM says climate change will be the biggest cause of extinctions because it will “overshadow smaller magnitude impacts of oil development,” which itself drives climate change.
“Extinctions, predicted to increase dramatically and particularly among birds, may alter the avian community with or without oil leasing and development in the ARCP [Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain] and irrespective of habitat alterations anticipated to result from global climate change,” the plan says.
Two-Thirds of Plain Open
The plan limits oil and gas development to 2,000 acres at any given time, but those acres would include roads, drilling pads, air strips and other infrastructure spread over a wide area.
Once those facilities are abandoned and reclaimed, they would no longer be included in the 2,000 acres as other land in the refuge is developed.
All told, the plan allows for roughly two-thirds of the coastal plain to be developed through the rest of the century, and some effects would be permanent.
Abandonment of oil and gas infrastructure and reclamation of those sites will also harm and displace birds, though “some” habitat would be eventually restored, the plan says.
Damaged for Decades
Oil and gas development across the Arctic coastal plain has severely damaged bird habitat for decades, George Divoky, an ornithologist and Arctic seabird researcher who founded Friends of Cooper Island in Alaska, said.
It is “amazing” that the BLM can recognize that oil and gas development can bring about bird extinctions, but will move ahead with the plan anyway, he said.
Energy development and climate change are eroding bird habitat quickly, and the plan to move forward with the development fossil fuels that cause climate change “makes no sense,” Divoky said.
Although the BLM plans to begin leasing about one-third of the refuge’s coastal plain later this year, the Energy Information Administration projects that it will take at least a decade before the first oil is produced within the refuge—probably no earlier than 2031.
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