Trump Administration Hides Oil Exploration Harms to Polar Bears

Published Feb 13, 2019

Scientists warned that the use of seismic surveys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could further threaten the polar bear population. Officials at the BLM and DOI are opening up the refuge to oil exploration.

What happened: Government scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) warned that the use of seismic surveys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could further threaten the polar bear population. Officials of the Trump administration at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Interior (DOI) appear to be ignoring these scientists as the process of opening up the refuge to oil exploration continues.

Why it matters: The government is legally required to consider the best available science when investigating how a government project, such as oil exploration activities in ANWR, may harm the threatened polar bear population. By not considering scientific evidence of harms to animals as a major government project moves forward – a requirement under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act – the Trump administration is putting a threatened species at risk.

Mother Jones obtained an internal memo written by government scientists from US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to assess whether an oil exploration company should be granted the ability to “take” (i.e. accidentally kill or accidentally severely harm) a small number of polar bears. The memo, originally written in September 2018, featured a preliminary analysis to determine if initial oil exploration activities would threaten the population of polar bears in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In ANWR, the Southern Beaufort Sea is a well-known place for mother polar bears to come ashore to den and give birth; ANWR is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den. According to a former chief polar bear researcher for the US Geological Survey (USGS), polar bear cubs are less likely to escape a motorized vehicle and the cubs have a decreased ability to survive exposure to outside winter temperatures if seismic operations crush their den.

The memo was penned by the regional head of the FWS in Alaska and was circulated within the Department of Interior (DOI). It warned that of the use of seismic surveys as a tool to identify petroleum reserves could lead to declines in polar bear population. This sharply contrasts with the Trump administration’s insistence that oil exploration activities in ANWR are harmless and should be approved quickly.

The FWS memo contains an analysis that estimates that there are 20 dens in the area and the seismic survey operators are likely to detect (and therefore not impact) 10 to 12 of these dens. Based on these den numbers and the number of cubs birthed on average by female polar bears during a year, the FWS memo estimates that approximately 15 bears could be subjected to “Level A harassment takes (injury or mortality).” When factoring in polar bear deaths due to legally-protected substance hunting by native Alaskan tribes, the FWS scientists estimate that even the death of one extra polar bear would likely exceed the legal threshold and would jeopardize the bear’s population. The authors of the memo also looked at mitigation measures – like more frequent aerial passes to search for dens and spatial or temporal restrictions on seismic activities – but they concluded that these measures were unlikely to sufficiently reduce the risks of the polar bear population declining due to the seismic survey operations.

To open up ANWR to fossil fuel development, seismic surveys are a required first step to assess the oil and gas potential. The seismic surveys would be a massive operation, requiring convoys of two dozen 90,000 pound thumper trucks that are accompanied by 150 support vehicles, which include crew quarters for 300 people. And the effects would be long lasting – there are still visible scars on the land from the last time that seismic surveys were carried out in ANWR in the mid-1980s.

The Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population are already declining in ANWR. Climate change has challenged the population and is a major factor in the population’s decline by approximately 40 percent from 2001 to 2010. Due to climate change’s accelerated loss of sea ice, polar bears are more likely to come ashore to den. Since 2008, polar bears have been listed as globally threatened and are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The winter denning period also coincidentally overlaps with the only time that the seismic surveys can take place. SAExploration, the company seeking to undertake the surveys, has proposed two measures to protect the bears: 1) using forward-looking infrared cameras mounted on trucks and airplanes to locate bear dens prior to the survey and then, 2) keeping their equipment a mile away from any identified den. But one of the scientists who developed the infrared camera technology notes that it will miss up to half of the occupied dens. The FWS memo also states this point, saying that the infrared camera technology is likely to detect denning bears only 50-62 percent of the time.

Despite this, BLM officials “felt that there would be insignificant impact” from the seismic survey and has concluded that its environmental assessment can be published with a draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). However, according to a former FWS official, “Assuming FWS has relayed this information [in the memo] to BLM, it’s hard to figure out how they can issue a FONSI.”

Scientists appear to have once again been ignored and sidelined by the Trump administration. By ignoring the voices of federal scientists, the administration is willing to allow the industry profits to jeopardize the existence of the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population. We only have two polar bear populations that live in the US. Protecting these animals is not only required by law but is required in order to sustain the US polar bear populations for future generations to come.