Stressed out Arctic wildlife face massive oil development
all the easy places on Earth to find oil have been explored. The most fragile environments have been left for last.
There’s no place more challenging for oil exploration than the Arctic Ocean’s continental shelf. Companies have drilled virtually every other likely deposit on Earth, but the expense, frigid weather and the lack of technology have kept them away.
The retreating sea ice has opened vast areas for possible exploration. Up to 90 billion barrels of oil, more than 80 percent located offshore, are considered “technically recoverable” in the Arctic with current technology, the U.S. Geological Survey says. Extraction could become immensely profitable if prices return to spring 2008 levels.
The USGS says the Arctic is “the largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth,” and may hold a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. When politicians in the United States, panicked by skyrocketing gasoline prices, chanted “drill, baby, drill,” during the 2008 presidential election, they were talking about going after places like this.
But these politicians could have given more thought to the highly stressed polar bears, walruses and other wildlife in the Arctic, many of which already are facing increased difficulties due to the effects of global warming.
Arctic melting, triggered by global warming, is forcing polar bears to abandon denning areas on the sea ice and move closer to existing oil development on or near the shore, and likely has been a factor in the deaths of bears from starvation, drowning and cannibalism. Global warming also played a critical role in the deaths of thousands of walruses during 2007.
The Bush administration nevertheless offered almost all polar bear and walrus habitat off Alaska in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for lease to oil companies. In February 2008, seven corporations thought so highly of the potential for oil and gas that they bid a record sum of $3.4 billion for the right to explore 2.76 million acres in the Chukchi.
With every step in Big Oil’s oncoming invasion, the stress on wildlife is likely to grow. Oil development will bring all the pollution, noise and human intrusion normally associated with industrialization to this frozen circumpolar wilderness. It will mean increased shipping traffic and likely fuel, oil and other spills from tankers, ice breakers, supply vessels, oil rigs, pipelines and liquid natural gas ports.
Oil development will also introduce noisy disturbances ranging from earsplitting undersea seismic surveys that may be harmful to endangered bowhead whales, to buzzing helicopters which are known to cause deadly walrus stampedes and disrupt other wildlife.
USGS biologist Steven C. Amstrup, one of the world’s leading polar bear experts, says the impacts of oil development on Arctic wildlife remains uncertain. “The most significant of these probably are related to possible spills of oil or other chemicals and the exposure of bears and other marine organisms to those substances,” he told Cascadia Times.
“Studies related to those topics in the areas of the new offshore leases have not been conducted,” Amstrup said.
The U.S., of course, is not alone in this Arctic adventure.
Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway have also been seeking oil and gas resources in the Arctic with an eye toward potentially ice-free shipping lanes around the North Pole as well. After a few highly publicized stunts, most notably the planting of a titanium Russian flag at the North Pole, nations have agreed to seek an amicable division of the spoils. A United Nations panel is scheduled to decide who controls which assets in the Arctic by 2020.
The Arctic gold rush is as much about petroleum and profits as it is about global warming and polar bears. The reward could be much larger than just 90 billion barrels of oil that the USGS says might be there. The U.S. already controls a third of that oil. The stakes also include 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about 221 trillion under U.S. waters) and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids buried under the sea — mostly in Russian territory. Assuming all of these fuels are burned, the carbon dioxide emissions would equal 115 billion tons, or about four times the planet’s annual output. The 21st Century Gold Rush Under President George Bush, the U.S. moved quickly to develop its potential Arctic Ocean oil fields, even though it has yet to develop a management plan for the areas that it has targeted for oil development.
“Here’s the area most impacted by climate change, and the Bush Administration response was to provide no management, zoning or protection — they basically zoned the whole thing ‘industrial’,” says Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment. “The fact that there is no management plan or zoning would be unacceptable anywhere else in the U.S., even without the fact that it’s being hit hardest of anywhere by climate change.”
The USGS says there may be more than 29 billion undiscovered barrels of oil in offshore fields in the Alaskan Arctic. This is in addition to the 13 billion barrels recovered from the Prudhoe Bay oil field since production began there in 1977 with the completion of the Trans-Alaskan oil pipeline. To date, more than 1,100 production wells have been developed at Prudhoe Bay, and another 2 billion barrels more might be all that remains.
In the Chukchi Sea, located northwest of Alaska, oil operations have included massive seismic exploration the last few years, an activity that can be highly disturbing to wildlife. The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling in federal waters, says there could be 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 77 cubic feet of natural gas in the Chukchi alone. Four more lease sales in the Arctic are scheduled through 2012, including two in the Chukchi and two in the Beaufort.
As of November 1, 2008, there were 281 unexplored leases in the Beaufort Sea, according to the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
BP Exploration has submitted a plan for development at its Liberty oil field located 6 miles from shore at Prudhoe Bay. Shell Oil Co. has proposed to drill six offshore areas north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near to Kaktovik. Conoco Phillips and GX Technology of Houston plan to conduct seismic studies in areas they leased.
Six environmental and Native groups have successfully gone to court to prevent Shell from launching exploratory activities until environmental issues are resolved. They are the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment and Resources Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
The North Slope Borough and the Whaling Commission also asked federal courts to rescind oil leases in the Beaufort Sea issued in 2007 by MMS. The Native Village of Point Hope, Alaska Wilderness League, Pacific Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity have petitioned the court to block MMS from proceeding with its program to expand oil and gas development for 2007-2012 in the Arctic. Oceana filed an amicus brief in support of the petition.
Decisions on those cases are pending.
“They have been moving forward very fast in the Bush administration,” said Faith Gemmill of Arctic Village, Alaska, outreach coordinator for REDOIL.
“We’re saying no more fossil fuel development should happen because of the devastating impact on our communities,” she said. “What we are calling for is a move toward a renewable and sustainable economy. That has to be the direction of our nation.”
In November 2008, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked all drilling by Shell until MMS fixes its faulty environmental studies.
The court said the agency’s environmental analysis failed to assess the temporary or permanent hearing damage to bowhead whales that would be caused by Shell’s seismic exploration, if it were allowed to occur.
The majority of the world’s bowhead whale population migrates through an area targeted by Shell for drilling. Inupiat hunters rely on bowhead whales in that area for subsistence food.
The bowhead whale is by far the most important subsistence for Inupiat communities, producing large amounts of meat consumed by their communities.
“There is the potential that Shell’s activities may disrupt the Inupiat whaling activities,” the court ruled.
Little fresh information has been published on bowhead whales in the Chukchi Sea. The most recent studies were conducted in the 1990s.
The court cited this as evidence that MMS has failed to take the requisite “hard look” at the overall environmental impacts of its exploration. “There remain substantial questions as to whether Shell’s plan may cause significant harm to the people and wildlife of the Beaufort Sea region,” the court said.
Shell now says it will wait until 2010 and 2011 before exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas goes forward.
In December 2008, MMS released another environmental study on how oil exploration will impact another 73 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Environmental advocates say MMS’ numerous scientific studies in this decade have repeatedly failed to assess the combined impacts of global warming and development by an oil industry eager to take advantage of the Arctic’s retreating sea ice.
“We think the only sensible approach in the Arctic is to have a science-based approach,” said Janis Searles Jones, senior vice president for national policy and legal affairs at the Ocean Conservancy. With warmer temperatures, she said, “you’re removing the shield that has effectively protected the Arctic from this gold rush.”
Jones stressed the lack of scientific information about Arctic ecosystems.
“Right now,” she said, “we don’t have the baseline science necessary to make informed decisions about industrial activities in the Arctic. Amstrup of the USGS agrees that studies on polar bears and other marine organisms have not yet been done. The public is concerned about the fate of polar bears and other wildlife as well.”
In a poll commissioned last summer by the ocean advocacy group Oceana, two-thirds of Americans said they were very or somewhat concerned about the risks of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, more than double the number who said they are only a little or not at all concerned.
“Most Americans don’t believe panic drilling in the Arctic solves our energy crisis or addresses climate change problems,” said Dr. Christopher Krenz, Arctic project manager for Oceana. “This poll shows that Americans want affordable energy while maintaining a healthy environment for their children’s future and they believe that we can do that through sound science and development of renewable energy alternatives.” Will polar bears survive the 21st Century? In 2007, the year of the record-low sea ice, the USGS predicted that there is “a high probability of serious declines” in polar bear populations unless the sea ice conditions improve in the Arctic. USGS scientists said the polar bear could be exterminated from Alaska, Asia and Europe by 2050 if current sea ice trends continue.
The USGS said the total population is now estimated at around 25,000 bears, but could crash by more than 90 percent by the end of the 21st century. Most of the world’s polar bears have experienced declines in the extent of their sea ice habitat.
Subpopulations in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and Barents Sea are most at risk.
“Our analysis suggests that polar bears in the (south Beaufort Sea) are likely to experience an important decline by mid-century as the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly ice free in the summer,” the USGS said.
Polar bears depend on sea ice for nearly every aspect of their life. The sea ice gives them access to their primary prey, ringed and bearded seals. Areas of declining or degraded sea ice in the Beaufort Sea have seen reduced cub survival, and a few documented incidents of drowned, emaciated, and cannibalized polar bears.
In fact, polar bears do much better when the sea ice hangs on longer. In the Beaufort Sea in 2001 and 2002. a USGS study reported, the ice-free period was relatively short, about 92 days, and survival of adult female polar bears was relatively high.
In 2004 and 2005, the ice-free period in the Beaufort averaged 135 days, and fewer adult female polar bears survived. Breeding and the number of newborn cubs also declined from high rates in early years to lower rates in later years of the study.
Female polar bears prefer to build dens offshore where they spend the winter nurturing their newborns. The dens provide warmth and security, and a platform for hunting seals. Unlike other bears, polar bears do not hibernate during the winter.
The USGS says the polar bear’s response to climate change has been to abandon their offshore dens at sea in favor of coastal areas, where spills in the massive North Slope complex occur more frequently, and where oil and gas development is coming. The first natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, aggressively promoted by Gov. Sarah Palin, is still a long way off.
A 2007 USGS study found that when the sea ice began its retreat in the 1980s, polar bears began building their dens on shore. It found that the proportion of polar bear dens on pack ice declined from 62 percent from 1985-1994 to 37 percent from 1998-2004. Aerial surveys flown from 2000 to 2005 have revealed that 71 percent of all bears have been observed within 16 miles of the village of Kaktovik, on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The polar bears are fleeing the sea because they are losing stable, aged sea ice that makes for the best habitat. They are also seeing a lengthening of the melt season, triggered by global warming.
As onshore denning becomes more important for the bears in the future, it further highlights the importance of protecting sensitive terrestrial denning habitat like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Without habitat protection, the bears could suffer poorer reproduction, the USGS said.
At some point, the sea ice will retreat so far out to sea that large numbers of pregnant polar bears will become stranded, finding it too far to survive the long swim back to shore and build dens.
Population data indicate that there are 1,526 polar bears in the Beaufort Sea, down from previous estimates of about 1,800. The Beaufort population is declining at a rate of three bears per 1,000 each year.
The U.S. Department of the Interior says it has no “reliable” population count of polar bears in the Chukchi, but estimates the population is about 2,000, and declining.
“The status of the polar bear has grown more dire, and, with it, the need for protection all the more compelling,” Kassie Siegel of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity told Congress. She wrote the CBD’s original petition in 2005 that asked the Interior Department to add the polar bear to the endangered species list. The petition helped to draw international attention to the plight of polar bears and brought pressure on the United States to provide the bear with the highest level of attention.
In January 2008, Siegel told Congress that even though the USGS strongly justified listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department appeared to be intentionally delaying the listing of the polar bear as a favor for its friends in the oil business.
“The Department of Interior has illegally delayed protection of the polar bear at every turn and is now poised to auction off some of the species’ most important habitat in the United States to the highest oil company bidder,” Siegel said. “This is unacceptable.”
In February 2008, the Minerals Management Service offered nearly all polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea for lease, out to 200 miles from shore, except for a 10-mile buffer along the coast.
Four months later, in May 2008, the the Interior Department finally announced it is listing polar bears worldwide as “threatened,” largely because of the dangers posed by the retreating sea ice. The delay meant that Interior did not have to determine whether oil exploration in the Arctic violated the Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing the existence of polar bears.
“The only thing keeping pace with the rapid melting of the sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of Interior, both on land and at sea, is authorizing oil and gas development in the region,” said Siegel. “The brakes must be put on such activity, while greenhouse gas reduction efforts must be accelerated.” Polar Bears flee into harm’s way In the Chukchi Sea, there is as much as a 40 percent chance that one or more large spills will occur, according to MMS, which defines a large spill as 1,000 barrels or more. MMS estimates that the risk of a large spill in the Beaufort Sea is 26 percent. Smaller spills of oil or other chemicals are even more likely. These estimates apply to pipelines, platforms and production facilities.
Oil spills have not been unusual in Alaska’s North Slope oil-industry complex. The recent history includes a 270,000-gallon spill in March 2006 when a 22-mile pipeline ruptured. The spill triggered a criminal investigation into allegations that BP was negligent for failing to maintain the pipeline. The U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal probe but ended up fining BP Exploration $20 million for the incident.
According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, there were 4,481 spills of crude oil, diesel, drilling muds, seawater and production water in the North Slope between 1995 and 2005, for a total volume of approximately 2.5 million gallons.
These figures do not include either the 2006 BP spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which released 10.8 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil into Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez spill has persisted in toxic forms for years, resulting in long-term impacts, especially for species associated with shallow sediments.
Some say the risk posed by the massive offshore oil development being considered by MMS is unacceptable.
“The Chukchi Sea is our garden,” said Jack Schaefer, president of the tribal council of the Native Village of Point Hope. “We’ve hunted and fished in the ocean for thousands of years. The ocean is what our history and culture is based on. One oil spill could destroy our way of life.”
There’s little chance of cleaning up a large spill. Cleanup crews would face excruciatingly cold temperatures, prolonged darkness and fierce storms.
Said Kristen Miller, legislative director of the Alaska Wilderness League, “The MMS has admitted a substantial likelihood of oil spills in the Chukchi Sea. There is no proven method to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s broken sea ice, or even to reliably clean up a spill in open water.”
The current MMS “cleanup” plan is to just burn the oil. MMS considers burning to be “one of the better response options in broken-ice conditions where the ice acts as a containment boom naturally concentrating the oil….In cases of very large spills, (burning) may be the only means to remove oil before a slick can come in contact with the shoreline and impact sensitive populations of birds and mammals.”
MMS acknowledges that there are few alternatives to burning, should a large spill occur in the Arctic.
“There has been little experience with under-ice or broken-ice oil spills, and there is little evidence to suggest that the capability exists currently to successfully clean up a spill of this type in a timely manner,” MMS said.
Burning a large spill, however, means that in addition to polluting the water, the spill would wind up polluting the air as well, transforming one disaster into two disasters.
Some find the government’s “just burn it policy” to be nothing short of outrageous. Said Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment: “What we do know is that a large oil spill in the Arctic is basically guaranteed under this plan and that there will be no way to effectively clean it up in the prevalent broken ice conditions. Despite industry assurances that lighting any spills on fire is state of the art technology, it is clear that polar bears, walruses, whales, seals, and the communities along the Arctic coast are destined to face the same sort of toxic legacy caused by the Exxon Valdez spill.”
With increasing numbers of polar bears fleeing the ocean and its disappearing ice, polar bears are increasingly aggregating in harm’s way — areas on the shore where small spills are almost routine and large spills would be devastating.
Polar bears are known to be attracted to petroleum products and can be expected to actively investigate oil spills. They also are known to consume foods fouled with petroleum products, biologists say.
Oiling can cause acute inflammation of a polar bear’s nasal passages, anemia, anorexia, stress, renal impairment, hypothermia and death. These effects may not become apparent for several weeks.
They cannot stay warm when their fur is oiled, and are poisoned when they groom themselves in an effort to remove the oil. Polar bears are also threatened by exposure to toxic chemicals, particularly persistent organic pollutants, such as organochlorine compounds, that have accumulated in all the world’s oceans.
In 2006 MMS, said there is the potential for “significant population-level effects” to polar bears if offshore oil deposits are developed.
At the time, the polar bear was experiencing an increasing amount of stress from climate change. It had lost an unprecedented amount of its sea ice habitat and faced potential extinction, according to the USGS which in 2007 released nine alarming studies about polar bears. The USGS said that continued climate change and loss of sea-ice habitat likely could lead to the extirpation of the polar bear from Alaska and across northern Asia and Europe within the next 45-75 years.
“Human activities related to oil and gas exploration and development are very likely to increase with disappearance of sea ice from many northern areas,” one of the USGS studies said. “At the same time, less sea ice will facilitate offshore developments. More offshore development will increase the probability of hydrocarbon discharges into polar bear environments.”
In January 2008, James Wilder, then a MMS biologist (he now works for NOAA), wrote in an internal review that the toxic impacts of spills on polar bears would do far more than merely add to its stress from the loss of sea ice. He said that the “sublethal, chronic effects of any oil spill can be expected to further suppress the recovery of polar bear populations due to reduced fitness of surviving animals.”
In November 2008, in its most recent statement on oil development and polar bears, MMS said that in light of the increased concentrations of bears on parts of the Beaufort Sea coast, “the potential for a large oil spill to impact polar bear populations on or near the coast has increased in recent years.”
MMS concluded that oil development, if properly mitigated, “is not likely to adversely affect polar bears.”
Before he left MMS, Wilder had grown frustrated by MMS decisions favoring oil developers, while failing to protect wildlife.
“I do not see how the MMS can pass the ‘red face’ test on this project when polar bear issues which have been raised have been repeatedly and completely ignored by both Shell and MMS,” Wilder wrote in an internal email that was leaked to the internet.
“Shell has completely ignored polar bears,” in its exploration oil spill cleanup plans, he wrote. “There is nothing in (Shell’s exploration plan) that show that polar bears were seriously considered, much less addressed.” Shell has denied the allegations.
He said that bear aggregations in open water are highly vulnerable, yet Shell failed to mention what it would do for those bears in the event of major spill. “Two of the largest polar bear aggregations in the Beaufort Sea are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill,” he said.
Wilder said MMS should acknowledge that drilling in the Arctic has “the potential to significantly impact polar bears in the event of a large oil spill.”
Brendan Cummings, the attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says bears are already bioaccumulating toxins from other sources in the ocean. “On top of that, the oil industry will be directly injecting poisons into their habitat,” he says. “It doesn’t take a catastrophic spill to cause great harm.”
Oil removed from the Arctic will continue to pose a hazard to the bears long after it is consumed as gasoline and other products. Arctic oil, once released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, will help to further melt the ice under the polar bear’s paws.
MMS, in its environmental impact statements, has made no effort to account for the double jeopardy posed by climate change and greenhouse gas emissions that result from Arctic oil development. In study, MMS said that it is “not appropriate” for it “to consider the endless cascade of environmental impacts that might flow from such consumption.”
This decision is consistent with federal policy under President Bush, which was to avoid taking any actions under the Endangered Species Act that would prevent polar bear habitat from being melted by global warming.
“Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears,” said former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “But it should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.”
Cummings said MMS should not be “handing out” entitlements such as oil leases “unless they are consistent with greenhouse gas reductions.”
Another of Kempthorne’s critics, Pacific Environment’s Whit Sheard, said Kempthorne’s decision means that the government intends to allow oil companies to intentionally ruin polar bear’s sea ice habitat with impunity. “The federal government’s plans to turn the Arctic Ocean into an oil and gas drilling sacrifice zone might prove to be the final nail in the coffin for polar bears.”