Arctic Refuge Oil Surveys Put Polar Bears in the Crosshairs
By Rebecca Bowe
Send an army of industry workers into remote polar bear territory in the dead of winter, and things are not going to end well.
Earthjustice has long worked to defend the Arctic Refuge, which now faces the greatest threat in decades as the Trump administration barrels forward with plans for an oil and gas lease sale as early as next year. Members of the public have until Feb. 11 to comment on a draft plan to hold a lease sale.
Congress opened the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to industry leasing for the first time ever in December of 2017, by tacking a drilling provision onto a federal tax bill to avoid a filibuster. Most Americans are against drilling in the Arctic Refuge because the wilderness has extraordinary ecological value that warrants the highest safeguards. Bipartisan opposition has historically prevented industry from harming this cherished landscape.
Polar bears on the coastal plain will be especially vulnerable to harm from seismic operations and drilling. Proposed oil exploration activities pose substantial risks of death or serious injury to denning mother and cub polar bears, according to the analysis of Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International. Polar bears, classified as marine mammals, are already struggling. Sea ice is vanishing, a consequence of warmer winter temperatures, and polar bears cannot survive without it. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, reduced sea ice could result in the loss of approximately two-thirds of the world's polar bears within 50 years. The agency predicts Alaska's polar bears will be "extirpated under current emission scenarios"—which means they will go extinct if nothing is done to address climate change.
Scientists refer to the polar bears that live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the Southern Beaufort Sea population. The coastal plain, the specific area of the Refuge where the fossil fuel industry envisions setting up oil-drilling equipment, is an important polar bear denning area.
The Southern Beaufort Sea population has declined by approximately 40 percent in recent years, which has made it more important than ever that the bears can successfully birth and raise young. As ice melts away, polar bear mothers are increasingly going on land, to the coastal plain, to build their dens—and they are particularly vulnerable to disturbance while denning. The combination of having more polar bears on shore and more people conducting seismic testing operations means there will be more interactions between people and bears, resulting in greater risks to bears.
Polar Bears in the wild Arctic off the north slope of Alaska, near Kaktovik on Barter Islandcheryl strahl / Flickr
Enter SAExploration, a private oil-industry outfit that submitted an application to conduct seismic testing on the coastal plain. Working 24 hours a day for months on end, this company envisions sending work crews of 150 people or more into this polar bear territory to map out oil and gas reserves. It would navigate 90,000-pound vehicles in a grid pattern across the landscape, sending vibrations into the ground and carving lasting impressions into the tundra. The crews would consume an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of fuel per day. An incinerator would burn garbage waste on site.
SAE has submitted a petition to the federal government for "incidental take authorization" for polar bears. The word "take," as defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, means "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill" a protected species.
According to Dr. Amstrup of Polar Bears International, SAE's proposal could bring deadly consequences. Amstrup warned in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management:
"Lethal disturbances are likely when a heavy vehicle actually runs over a den … On average, if there are 11 undetected bear dens on the refuge, a seismic survey like that proposed by SAE has a 25 percent chance that at least one polar bear will be killed when a heavy vehicle runs over it. Less lethal disturbances are likely when heavy vehicles pass … [nearby] a den."
Amstrup notes that even with the use of infrared surveys to mark the location of polar bear dens, as many as half of the occupied dens will go undetected across the vast landscape. The scientist concludes:
"It is virtually certain that most undetected polar bears in their dens will be disturbed at some level."
There are many good reasons to oppose oil and gas industrialization in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It would destroy one of the last truly intact wilderness areas on Earth, an open expanse of public lands that for decades remained off-limits to drilling precisely because Congress recognized its extraordinary value. Greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and burning Arctic Refuge oil reserves would worsen global climate change, making life worse for future generations. It would also disrupt migrating caribou, in turn violating the human rights of indigenous Gwich'in people who rely on caribou as a primary food source.
"Earthjustice is fighting Trump's headlong rush to consign the coastal plain to large-scale industrial oil activities," said Anchorage-based Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. "As we speak, the administration is on course to permit seismic testing as early as this winter without legitimate environmental review and without even identifying what law it thinks authorizes this activity."
As the Trump administration and its friends in the oil sector prepare to shatter the wintry silence of the Arctic Refuge with major industrial operations in just a few months' time, the threat to endangered polar bears speaks volumes about the current administration's disregard for wildlife and the public lands we all cherish.
#Trump Administration Sued Over Controversial #Arctic Drilling Project https://t.co/yFj74Sn62x @peoplevsoil @CenterForBioDiv @Defenders— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1545170416.0
Rebecca Bowe is the communications strategist for Earthjustice's Northwest and Alaska regional offices.
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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