Impacts of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Lauren Bettino, Natural Resource Conservation (Wildlife Focus)

Hank Moylan, Natural Resource Conservation (Wildlife Focus)

Victoria Stukas, Animal Science

Deemed “the sacred place where life begins” by Alaska’s native Gwich’in people (Cultural Survival, 2005), the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) possesses massive environmental and cultural importance. Spanning approximately 8.9 million acres across northeastern Alaska, the ANWR is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; one of 16 refuges in Alaska.

The ANWR is also home to an impressive collection of wildlife; with 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, 8 marine mammals, and over 200 resident and migratory bird species, the Refuge is one of the most diverse areas in the arctic, with several notable species including polar bears, musk oxen, and caribou (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013b).

The Refuge was established in 1960 to preserve and protect its unique wilderness, abundant wildlife, and recreational value (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013a) as post WWII construction and resource development raised concerns about environmental losses (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2000). Years of debate within Congress eventually led to the passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), doubling the size of the Refuge and deeming most of the original range as “wilderness.” All areas not allocated as “wilderness” became the “1002 Area,” named after Section 1002 of ANILCA which describes the specific data Congress would need before it could designate the area as “wilderness” or permit oil development (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2000).

However, oil development plans threaten to overtake the pristine 1002 Area. As the Bush Administration encouraged legislation supporting domestic energy expansion, the ANWR debate gained momentum in the early part of the century. In 2001, the House of Representatives accepted legislation supporting drilling in the ANWR. The next year, the Senate passed the Energy Policy Act of 2002, which did not include legislation for drilling in the Refuge. Then, in 2003, the debate resurfaced yet again, and in a close vote of 52-48, the Senate denied plans for ANWR oil exploration and drilling (Pasquinelli, 2003). The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that approximately 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil lie within 1.5 million acres of the Refuge (Snyder, 2007, p. 937) – a large enough amount to warrant interest from oil companies, economists, and select stakeholders and politicians. However, recovering this oil would inevitably involve mass, irreversible, ecological damage to the ecosystems within the area that will be explored in this paper.

Small villages and towns scattered across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada are the homes of approximately 7,000 Gwich’in Indians, the northernmost native nation. The Gwich’in tribes occupy the southern slopes of the Brook Range in Alaska. Gwich’in translates to “people of the caribou,”

Stories of ancient times describe how northern people lived in “peaceful intimacy” with all the animals (Patterson, 1996, para. 3). When the people became differentiated into distinct cultural groups, it was agreed upon that the newly formed Gwich’in tribe would hunt the caribou. With a caribou population of 123,000 in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Gwich’in hunt an estimated 3,000 each year (Patterson, 1996, para. 4) . One fundamental Gwich’in belief is that “every caribou has a bit of the human heart in them; and every human has a bit of caribou heart,” undermining the spiritual and cultural significance of these animals (Patterson, 1996, para. 6). Today, the Gwich’in community continues to rely on the caribou to meet both their substance and spiritual needs. The hunting and distribution of the caribou meat enhances their social interaction with other tribes in the area as well as their cultural expression (Patterson, 1996, para. 4). For instance, when there is fresh caribou meat available, the caribou will be consumed three or four times a day, the meat being shared throughout the community and region by the network of gift-giving arrangements as well as currency for other goods (Patterson, 1996, para. 7). Even though caribou are mostly used as a food source, caribou skin is used for the winter boots, slippers, purses, bags, and other items of Native dress. Caribou bones are still used as tools (Patterson 1996, para. 7). Songs, stories, and dances, old or new, reverberate around the caribou, further strengthening Gwich’in cultural life. Although the Gwich’in people could not have survived for many centuries without the exploitation of smaller mammals, birds, and fish, caribou have always been the predominant feature of their way of life – culturally as well as economically (Patterson, 1996, para. 5).

The porcupine caribous voyage on the longest migration of any land mammal on earth, making a 400-mile hour each year from Canada so that their can give birth to their calves on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s narrow coastal plain (Lynas, 2001, para. 4). Gwich’in villagers mostly associate with the Porcupine caribou herd and are centrally located to the herd, making the tribe the main distributor to other villages in the area.

Wildlife biologist Ken Whitten, who spent 25 years studying caribou behavior for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as informed his concern for the 140 Gwich’in Indians who live just outside the Southern edge of the refuge in Arctic Village, saying if drilling proceed in that area, the caribou that sustained the Gwich’in for many centuries will be destroyed forever (Lynas, 2001, para. 8).  When people discuss the environmental impacts the drilling project will contain, not only will it affect the wildlife negatively, not to mention it will affect the people that depend on these species for survival as well as their economical stability dramatically.

On the contrary, The Gwich’in are in fear that drilling in the ANWR will put an end to their existence as caribou hunters, while the Inupiat tribe are coastal dwellers that derive many of their food consumption from the sea, worry that without oil development of ANWR’s gas and oil revenues will not help them support their modern comforts or traditions. Danny Gemmill, a Gwich’in member comments saying that “no one knows what will happen if they open it up… maybe we won’t see the caribou again for a 1,000 years” (Wallace, 2005, para. 3).

Many wildlife species rely on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for their habitat including polar bears, musk oxen and wolverines. However, the species that relies heaviest on the ANWR is the caribou, specifically the porcupine caribou herd. According to the last census performed by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (2014), the population of the porcupine caribou herd is currently at around 197,000 individuals (PCMB, 2014, p. i). This makes it the fifth largest herd of migratory caribou in North America (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2013c, p.1). The majority of the year caribou’s habitat ranges from Northeastern Alaska into Northwestern Canada with an exception of summer where they migrate to an annual calving ground (Griffith et. al, 2002, p.15). Most of these crucial calving grounds are located on the coastal plain of the ANWR and in the 1002 area where oil been discovered. If the 1002 area is available for oil exploration and drilling, it will play a major role on the caribous’ lifestyle.

The porcupine caribou herd come to the coastal plains of the 1002 area for calving every year in late May. The calving occurs on coastal plains due to the fact that the plains are usually free of snow by this time and due to the amount of vegetation, which increases camouflage and decreases predation. They give birth to the calves here (usually one per adult female) and stay in the nutrient rich habitat for about 3 weeks (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 25). Due to the high numbers of caribou that come to this area it has been regarded as a concentrated calving zone. According to Clough, Patton, & Christiansen (1987), concentrated calving zones are the most essential areas due to the fact that they have the highest caribou densities and maintain the largest number of parturient females, caribou that are about to give birth or caribou that have just given birth, and their calves. Since this area is so critical for calving, disturbances caused by oil drilling would most likely both decrease the population of the porcupine caribou herd and displace the herd to other, less suitable, calving sites outside of the 1002 area. Drilling in this area could be problematic for the herd in many ways.

The first problematic situation for the caribous would be negative responses towards human infrastructure and other disturbances. In a study by Dyer, O’Neill, Wasel, and Boutin (2001) on woodland caribou in Alberta, they found that there was a disturbance zone of around 1000 m near oil wells and 250 m around seismic lines (p. 536). Oil drilling in the ANWR would require large amounts of infrastructure, including pipelines, wells, and roads. Clough, Patton, and Christiansen (1987) state that if there was full leasing for oil across the ANWR about 303,000 acres of calving habitat would be affected which is 37% of the total calving habitat (p. 120). The authors illustrate that both parturient females and calves would dismiss the area for temporary habitat if drilling occurs (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 120). This would cause calving to occur elsewhere and would increase the density of caribou drastically in the unaffected areas which might bring harm to the mother and calf. According to Griffith et al. (2002), parturient females tend to avoid crossing over roads or under pipelines during calving season (p. 40). If drilling infrastructure was built on the calving grounds it would cause female caribou be displaced from the calving grounds since they choose to avoid human disturbances. In nearby Prudhoe Bay, where oil drilling does take place, the caribou that calve there, called the Central Arctic herd, were shown to move their calving area 7-8 km away from drilling infrastructure showing that it caused a disturbance to the caribou (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 31). This displacement would be even greater for the porcupine caribou herd due to much larger numbers and less nutrient rich land available in the surrounding area of the calving zone.

Next, displacement from calving grounds cause a decrease in calf survival. Griffith et al. (2002) created a model for if there was full oil development in the 1002 area and found that the average displacement of the caribou from drilling infrastructure would be about 52 km due to the high density of caribou in the herd (p. 31). This would reduce the calf survival during the month of June by 8.2% (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 31). According to Griffith et al. (2002), if the calf survival rate of the herd is reduced by more than 4.6% the growth rate of the population would stop, which could lead to a potential extinction for the species (p. 32). This would be caused by only 27 km displacement so any displacement that is greater would halt the herds growth (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 32). The 8.2% reduction in calf survival would cause the growth rate of the population to decrease dramatically and the herd would decrease in numbers since a greater number of individuals are dying than being born. This would be devastating for the population of the porcupine caribou herd. Figure 2 shows the calf survival estimates from their model. It shows that on average the greater the distance the caribou were displaced, the greater the reduction in calf survival rates. It is a vital habitat for the caribou in order to maintain their population. In years where the porcupine herd cannot get to the 1002 area and are forced to calf elsewhere due to a large amount of snow on the coastal plains, June calf survival dropped by 19% (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 34). This rarely occurs but if oil drilling was to occur in this area than there would be similar results every year due to displacement.

Calf survival decreases as you get farther from the calving grounds for a few different reasons. First is the lack of vegetation and nutrients as you start to leave the coastal plains. The porcupine caribou herd is most likely to be displaced to the south for calving ground which is composed of more foothills and mountains that are not suitable habitat for newborn caribou. These are not great for foraging due to lack of high quality habitat (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 34). Another reason is increased chance for predation. The two major predators of caribou (grizzly bears and wolves) are usually more abundant in the foothills and mountains where the caribou would be displaced to. In a study by Griffith et al. (2002), they measured the abundances of these two predators in three habitat types, coastal plains, foothills, and mountains (p. 51). Grizzly bears were found to primarily stay in the foothills with a few wandering to the coastal plain to feed on the caribou (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 51). They found that all of the active wolf dens in the area were in the mountains except for one that was in the foothills. According to Griffith et al. (2002), there has not been a reported case of a wolf den on the coastal plains of the ANWR (p. 51). If the caribou were forced south towards the foothills and mountains, then they would be at a much higher risk of predation since both grizzly bears and wolves are at a greater density there.

Another issue the caribou face is insect harassment, especially from mosquitoes. After calving occurs, the porcupine herd will move towards the coast to try to seek relief from these insects (Corn, 2003, p. 59). Oil development in the 1002 area could reduce the access to these important habitats. According to Clough, Patton, and Christiansen (1987), if caribou cannot freely move to a lower density insect habitat there could be severe consequences of disease or death caused by the insects (p. 122). The proposed main pipeline for the 1002 area (as shown in Figure 3) would bisect the calving grounds causing a huge disturbance right down the middle of the crucial habitat (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 98). This pipeline would be a major barrier for the herd since other large herds of insect-harassed caribou have been observed to not travel under pipelines and have been seen to run up to 20 miles out of their way in order to go around the pipeline rather than passing under the pipeline (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 112). This would mean the reduced use of the land north of the pipeline which contains about 52% of the total insect relief habitat (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 112). This means the caribou would have to escape the insects by travelling south towards the foothills where there is a much greater risk of predation.

Another species that will be affected by oil drilling in the ANWR is the musk ox. They were locally driven to extinction in the 1002 area in the late 1800’s and were later reestablished in 1969. There are currently less than 250 individuals that reside here and their numbers have been declining since the late 1990’s (Griffith et al., 2002, p.62). Musk oxen are year round inhabitants of the 1002 area and therefore would be in the 1002 area during the winter when most of the oil exploration and construction would take place. Musk oxen conserve energy during the winter by almost shutting down their metabolism and moving as little as possible (Corn, 2003, p. 63). Any type of disturbance during this time would adversely affect the musk oxen and could force the musk oxen to expend all its energy stores for the winter if it is forced to flee. This is an issue for the musk ox since it needs those energy stores in order to survive the winter (Corn, 2003, p. 63).  Clough, Patton, and Christiansen (1987) write that musk oxen could lose about 2,700 acres of habitat directly from oil drilling (p. 124). This is because any type of human disturbance could discourage the musk oxen from using their preferred habitats. They rely heavily on riparian zones for foraging and better snow conditions. Any type of displacement from these areas could have a negative impact on muskoxen due to their energy needs and predation. According to Clough, Patton, and Christiansen (1987), musk oxen respond heavily seismic vehicles and have been reported to flee for about 0.6 miles after a disturbance from a seismic vehicle that was about 1.9 miles away (p. 124). They have also been found to stay about 2 miles away from seismic lines (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 124).

Polar bears are also a major concern when considering of the harmful effects oil drilling. Being the world’s largest land carnivore and one of the most widely recognized and charismatic species, it is no wonder that many people are extremely concerned about how polar bears would be affected if drilling in the Refuge occurs. Approximately 1,500 polar bears reside in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2014, para. 2); one of only two subpopulations of polar bears in the United States which is known as the Southern Beaufort Sea population. Sadly, as it turns out, this population is facing a very real threat in the face of arctic oil drilling.

One fundamental issue in planning for ANWR oil development is choosing the most appropriate time of year to enter the Refuge for drilling. Several oil companies proposed limiting their activity in the Refuge to the winter only in an attempt to minimize their environmental impacts, as this would benefit the majority of species in the area. Unfortunately, polar bears are not included in the species that would benefit from this plan. Wintertime drilling would be highly detrimental for polar bears, as winter is when polar bear denning occurs (Corn, 2003, p. 62), making them particularly sensitive to disturbances – ultimately devaluing this “environmentally-conscious” proposal. Every October/November, female bears move to coastal areas to seek a maternity site where she then digs a den in the snow and gives birth to one to three cubs in December/January. The mother and her new cubs finally emerge from their den in March/April (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2014, para. 3). The ANWR is not just the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den, but it is also the most consistently used polar bear land denning area in Alaska (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2014, para. 5), and it possesses the highest density of onshore dens of any area along the Alaskan coastline (Corn, 2003, p. 61), making it by far America’s most important onshore denning habitat for these bears. With a large number of denning individuals in the area, threats from drilling could have significant impacts on the Refuge’s bear population. Several studies found that female polar bears are highly sensitive to even slight human disturbance and will often respond by abandoning their cubs (Corn, 2003, p. 61). Aside from the drilling itself, other oil-related processes such as seismic blasts drive mother bears away from their cubs (Defenders of Wildlife, 2010, para. 5). In 1985, a pregnant polar bear in the Refuge was observed abandoning her soon-to-be birthing den after she was disturbed by seismic activity from what was considered to be the “most intensive monitoring program ever in place for seismic exploration” (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1986, p. 118) – evidence that these bears would be highly responsive to even the most state-of-the-art ANWR drilling program.

As polar bear denning occurs both on mainland areas and on annual ice plains, some may argue that the region’s polar bears’ denning behaviors should not be heavily affected as this drilling would occur on the mainland and therefore any potential den displacement can simply be shifted outwards onto offshore ice islands, banks, and plains where drilling is not present. However, it is imperative to recognize the significant reduction in Arctic sea ice over the past few decades – a trend that is only expected to continue and potentially worsen. With February of 2014 holding the fourth lowest record of Arctic sea ice extent and with an annual decline of about three percent (“Arctic Sea Ice Extent Decline,” 2014), the future of Arctic sea ice looks grim. To make things even more complicated, a strikingly large proportion of this population’s bears – about half – choose to make their dens on annual pack ice that has been declining in both age and size since 1990 (Durner, Amstrup & Ambrosius, 2006, p. 35). But as the sea ice melts, the polar bears must find somewhere else to den. This means it is virtually inevitable that the proportion of bears denning on the mainland in the Refuge will increase dramatically within the foreseeable future, a phenomenon that only further heightens the value of the Refuge for U.S. polar bears.

Polar bears in arctic regions use sea ice not only for denning habitat but for crucial hunting grounds of their main prey species: seals. Loss of arctic sea ice makes seal hunting a near impossible task, a phenomenon that continues to threaten polar bears, including the declining Beaufort Sea population. Arctic populations have declined in numbers by approximately 40% since the start of the millennium, and in 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the total number of polar bears worldwide will shrink to just a third of its current size due to loss of habitat and decreased access to prey (Qiu, 2014). As polar bears are one of the most highly susceptible species to human-induced climate change, these magnificent creatures are already fighting a brutal uphill battle against prominent changes in fundamental habitat structure – a sad reality that is only forecasted to intensify. Further, the results from a study based in the 1002 Area of the Refuge suggest that climate change and oil development actually behave synergistically when their future potential impacts on wildlife habitat are analyzed in unison (Fuller, Morton, and Sarkar, 2008). In other words, the simultaneous occurrence of climate change and oil development would intensify both of their individual contributions to habitat reduction for polar bears, (in addition to ten other resident species). Fuller, Morton, and Sarkar (2008) conclude that shortfall from wildlife conservation targets in the 1002 Area is up to 35 times greater if the area is developed for oil drilling as opposed to being left intact, and state that their findings should provide Congress with critical insight for permanently proscribing oil development and designating it a protected wilderness area (p. 1556).

As countless organizations, non-profits, researchers, governments, and concerned citizens continue to pour more and more time and money into the conservation of this flagship species, permitting drilling in this undeniably paramount region would be a hugely disappointing step backwards. Further decline in one of the world’s most charismatic species would imply more than just an ecological crisis: it would represent a widespread negligence for conserving our natural resources and protecting the environment and its wildlife. Sadly, it is too late to alleviate all the effects of climate change on polar bears. However, it is not too late to halt drilling plans. Here, we can fix a problem before it even begins: an opportunity that, if passed up, would leave even more irreparable effects on this vulnerable species. As sea ice continues to melt rapidly and habitat continues to disappear, refugee polar bears will become increasingly dependent upon the ANWR mainland, and it is up to us to make sure polar bears can fully utilize the ANWR for what it is: a wildlife refuge.

Another major consequence of oil drilling is the potential of a major spill. However, major spills have been fairly uncommon in Alaska. In recent studies, Kotchen and Burger (2007) investigated that there has been a total of three major spills in the history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The monitoring systems failed to detected that there was even a leak which resulted in a 267,000 gallon of crude oil dumped into the Alaskan terrain. Another incident was in 1978, when a group of vandals poured 700,000 gallons out of the pipeline. Lastly a hunter in 2001 shot the pipeline which caused a 285,000-gallon spill (Kotchen and Burger, 2007, p. 4725). Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency addressed that oil spills generally occur in small quantities. For instance, if the small permeates six to ten inches of the soil, hydrocarbon eating microbes can generally remove the excess crude oil. Larger amounts will require more effort. When the spill occurs, the area is usually flooded with water to dilute the oil and bring it to the surface and large vacuum device will suck up the oil from the ground (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 2009, p. 8).

The oil industries have learned to control the spill impact in Alaska, when a spill has occurred, the government has set aside industry taxes to pay for clean up when they cannot identify the guilty party, or when non-negligent liability exceeds $5 million (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 2009, p. 8). Animals may migrate from the area and lead to habitat change due to the oil development from the oil spill.

Nevertheless, Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization based in the United States that’s dedicated to environmental issues, is heading to court to challenge federal approval of Shell Oil’s plan to drill in the Alaskan Arctic’s Beaufort Sea (Jenkins, 2011, para. 1). After the Deepwater Horizon spill, President Obama delayed plans by Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic Ocean. However, in August, the administration reversed the stand and approved the first part of the Arctic Drilling proposal letting Shell’s plan to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea as early as the summer of 2012 (Jenkins, 2011, para. 3) .

If an oil spill occurs in the Arctic Ocean, it would be catastrophic for the polar bears, seals, bowhead whales and other marine mammals which would affect the Native subsistence communities who have thrived in this region for generations (Jenkins, 2011, para. 4). According to an Earthjustice Alaska-based attorney on the case, Holly Harris stated:

BOEMRE is allowing Shell to drill even though the company has no credible plan to cleanup an oil spill in the Arctic’s icy waters, and instead just asserts it can clean up 95 percent of oil spilled. Let’s look at the facts: in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, with a massive response and no Arctic ice to hamper them, crews skimmed up only 3 percent of the oil. Now is not the time for a ‘just trust us’ approaching to Arctic drilling. (Jenkins, 2001, para. 5)

U.S. Coast Guard officials have vigorously stated the resources to clean up any oil spill in the water of the Arctic Ocean do not exist. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp told congress that the federal government has “Zero spill response capability” in the Arctic (Jenkins, 2011, para. 6).

Lastly, a report was published to the government’s leading scientists’ highlights, basic scientific information about nearly every aspect of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem is missing. With the lack of data, it makes it to nearly impossible to thoroughly assess the risks and impacts of drilling to wildlife and people in the Arctic, making it also impossible to make informed, science-based decisions (Jenkins, 2011, para. 8).

Plans to drill for oil in the ANWR should be rejected to preserve and protect the key species and overall biodiversity of the ecosystem as the environmental damage to wildlife incurred from oil drilling and development outweighs potential economic benefits. Congress is urged to reject all plan proposals to drill within the Refuge and inform the public on the imminent threats to crucial wildlife species that inhabit the ANWR. As Clough, Patton, and Christiansen (1987) describe in their report, there are regulations put in place by the Council on Environmental Quality that “require that when no information is available as to reasonably foreseeable significant adverse impacts, an agency must evaluate those impacts… which could be expected to result in “catastrophic” consequences if they do occur” (Clough, Patton, & Christiansen, 1987, p. 108). Since more research needs to be done on the effects of oil drilling in the ANWR there should be no drilling unless we are confident in our knowledge about all potential impacts on wildlife and are sure that these impacts will be outweighed by potential benefits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

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Evan

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