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Tom Kirkman

Polar bear protections delayed oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge. A new federal study shows how companies could still move forward

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A surprisingly neutral look at oil exploration attempts in the U.S. Arctic Refuge.  Attempts made to balance both pro and con viewpoints.

Polar bear protections delayed oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge. A new federal study shows how companies could still move forward

Last year, a company asked the Trump administration for permission to take the first steps toward oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: running a convoy of special oil-detecting trucks along the refuge’s coastal plain, to determine how much petroleum lies below.

But the Trump administration never gave the go-ahead, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying that the initial proposal didn’t comply with federal rules under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That rule limits harm to polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A government shutdown also delayed work on the application from the company, Houston-based SAExploration, which has never said publicly exactly why the project did not move ahead.

Now, a newly-published study by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey shows what kinds of precautions companies could take to obtain federal approval to explore for oil in sensitive polar bear habitat. By using heat-sensing cameras to detect dens, and accepting strict limits on when to survey specific areas of the coastal plain, the study says that polar bear disturbance can be dramatically reduced – from as many as eight dens if no restrictions are applied, to one or less using the most conservative approach.

[Read the study]

“A carefully-designed survey can reduce your potential impacts to the bears pretty far – to the point where you might be getting to a place where you may be able to meet determinations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Ryan Wilson, a Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear biologist and one of the two authors of the study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

The study offers a window into the push and pull between the competing stakeholders and statutes that are shaping the future of the Arctic Refuge – the top Trump administration appointees and oil industry pushing to access the coastal plain after Congress passed a law opening the area to drilling in 2017, the environmental organizations fighting them and the Fish and Wildlife Service employees charged with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was enacted in 1972.  ...


... Moriarty’s group, which advocates on the oil industry’s behalf, supports using the “best available science” to minimize impacts on wildlife, she said.

But she also argued that the study gives a kind of “worst-case scenario” look at development – and that companies would likely take precautions to reduce risks below the levels the study assumes.
“We do have really good management techniques at play now, and that are effective at identifying, mitigating, minimizing any type of impact to the bear,” she said. “Because that’s the last thing we want.”
There’s no seismic work planned inside the refuge this winter. But it’s likely that new surveys will be proposed after the federal government holds its first lease sale for the coastal plain, which is expected some time in 2020.


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