Apparently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under Joe Biden agrees with my conclusion that oil company activities in Alaska pose minimal risk to polar bears (Crockford 2019, 2020, 2021). Although this ruling is not yet final, they have proposed that oil exploration and extraction activities on the North Slope of Alaska can proceed over the next five years.
After noting that no major offshore oil spills have ever taken place in the Alaskan portion of the Beaufort Sea (see map below) and that all spills to date have been on land with no impact on polar bears, the proposed rule in the 200+ page assessment states:
The Service does not anticipate any lethal or injurious take that would remove individual polar bears or Pacific walruses from the population or prevent their successful reproduction. Harassment events are anticipated to be limited to human interactions that lead to short-term behavioral disturbances. These disturbances would not affect the rates of recruitment or survival for the walrus and polar bear stocks. These proposed regulations do not authorize lethal take, and we do not anticipate any lethal take will occur.
A ‘take’ in USFWS language can be a kill, an injury, or simply ‘harassment’ that disturbs an animal in some way. In other words, their assessment concludes that no animals are likely to be killed or injured and that any disturbance is likely to be minor (non-life threatening). In part, this is because few polar bear females use this area for denning in any given year. However, to protect the few that do, the industry will do aerial infrared surveys to locate any dens in the area before winter work begins and take steps to avoid disturbance (see also page 100-106 in the document). A ‘take’ does not include any impact from an oil spill, which is illegal but considered very unlikely in this circumstance.
Compare the above to the over-the-top language used by the Center for Biological Diversity (28 May 2021) in their press release in response to this proposal [my bold]:
The Biden administration issued a proposed rule today allowing oil companies operating in the Beaufort Sea and Western Arctic to harass polar bears and Pacific walruses when drilling or searching for oil for the next five years.
“It’s maddening to see the Biden administration allowing oil companies to continue their noisy, harmful onslaught on polar bears. Oil in this sensitive habitat should stay in the ground,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “President Biden promised bold action to address the climate crisis, yet his administration is proposing to allow business-as-usual oil drilling in the Arctic. Polar bears and walruses could pay a terrible price.”
The Southern Beaufort Sea population is the most imperiled polar bear population in the world. With only about 900 bears remaining, scientists have determined that the survival of every individual bear is vital to the survival and recovery of the population.
The heavy equipment used in seismic exploration and drilling activities can crush polar bears in their dens or scare polar bears out of their dens too early, leaving cubs to die of exposure or abandonment by their mothers. The noise generated by routine operations can disturb essential polar bear behavior and increase their energy output.
Walruses are also incredibly sensitive to human disturbance. Without summer sea ice for resting, walrus mothers and calves have been forced to come ashore, where they are vulnerable to being trampled to death in stampedes when startled by noise.
Wow: “The Southern Beaufort Sea population is the most imperiled polar bear population in the world“. A few years ago, Western Hudson Bay bears were all over the news for their threatened status. I guess that classification changes depending on the political circumstance.
Even if some “scientists have determined that the survival of every individual bear is vital to the survival and recovery of the population” it is also a fact that other scientists at the USFWS have determined that the risks to those bears from oil industry activity is minimal. It appears scientists, even government scientists, can disagree. Who would have thought?
Walruses may be “incredibly sensitive to human disturbance” but the USFWS proposed ruling states that there have been no more than 38 walruses sighted within the areas used by the oil industry in the Southern Beaufort between 1995 and 2015 (about 2 per year)(pages 107-110) in the document). Sightings of walrus in the Southern Beaufort are considered ‘extralimital’ or outside the normal range (and rare). In other words, no walrus herds of mothers and calves come ashore in the areas where oil exploration and extraction are proposed, so the stated vulnerability of them being “trampled to death in stampedes when startled by noise” is absolutely irrelevant; moot; of no consequence.
The bold statement that walrus “could pay a terrible price” when they don’t even inhabit this region is activist logic of the highest order.
Steven Amstrup from the activist organization Polar Bears International (pictured above with polar bear cubs) has lobbied heavily against oil activity in the Southern Beaufort in recent years (Amstrup 2018a, b; 2019), using similar exaggerated language, but has so far not commented on this proposed ruling.
Bottom line: When you overstate risks in such an obvious way, you should be prepared to be ignored.
USFWS 2021. Marine mammals; Incidental take during specific activities: North Slope, Alaska. Federal Register, in press. Docket FWS-R7-ES-2021-0037 [to be published 1 June 2021, federalregister.gov/d/2021-11496
Other stories on the bigger oil project decision:
Interior Dept. files brief defending Willow project review (Alaska Journal of Commerce, 28 May 2021)
Biden administration defends Trump-era Alaska oil decision (CBC News Canada, 27 May 2021)
Biden administration throws support behind massive Willow oil project in NPR-A (Alaska Public Media, 27 May 2021)
Biden administration defends huge Alaska oil drilling project (New York Times, 26 May 2021)
Amstrup, S.C. 2018a. Proposed oil exploration plan would put polar bear population at an unacceptable risk. Opinion, 25 September, The Hill. https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/energyenvironment/408225-proposed-oil-exploration-plan-would-put-polar-bear
Amstrup, S.C. 2018b. Review of the SAE proposal for SEISMIC EXPLORATION ON THE COASTAL PLAIN. Polar Bears International, August 15, 2018. PDF here.
Amstrup, S.C. 2019. Written Testimony of Dr. Steven C. Amstrup Chief Scientist, Polar Bears International before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the Committee on Natural Resources United States House of Representatives legislative hearing on ‘The Need to Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain’ 26 March 2019 https://naturalresources.house.gov/ download/testimony-polar-bears-international-amstrup PDF here.
Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. pdf here.
Crockford, S.J. 2021. The State of the Polar Bear Report 2020. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 48, London. pdf here.