Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Faces Oil Drilling Threat

For the past 30 years, extensive conservation efforts have protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas interests. Now, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Trump administration has renewed a movement to open up the refuge to energy exploration. In a document obtained by the Washington Post on September 15, the DOI urges the Trump administration to implement a draft rule that would strike a 1980s provision that prevents seismic exploration in the Alaska refuge. Seismic studies represent a necessary ground step for Arctic drilling and have been halted due to their impacts on local wildlife, including denning polar bears.

Established in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 19 million acres, stretching from the coast to the glacier summits, and is one of the last intact landscapes in America. The refuge is home to the Brooks Range, which has peaks and glaciers up to 9,000 feet, and mountains that span 75 miles from east to west. In addition, there are around 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species that reside in the refuge. With its abundance of biodiversity, the refuge is considered one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive ecosystems in the world.

Pamela A. Miller, an Alaskan conservationist and former Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, told GlacierHub, “Opening a protected wildlife refuge to the oil and gas industry would continue Alaska and the nation on the fossil fuel course which is not sustainable in the face of adding a new source of global warming pollution – at a time when Alaska is already warming at a rate two times the rest of the nation. The Arctic Refuge today as a protected landscape provides resilience and safety for wildlife in the face of climate change which is transforming their habitats – and on top of that there is massive industrialization continuing to grow across America’s Arctic.”

A polar bear and its young in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

When asked about the effects of climate change and drilling on the refuge, Neil Lawrence, the Alaska director to the Natural Resource Defense Council, added, “Climate change has softened permafrost, made tundra more vulnerable, greatly stressed coastal species dependent on ice, and overall made the flora, fauna, and geology of the refuge more vulnerable to any disturbance, including seismic and drilling.” With temperatures rising, glaciers like the McCall Glacier and other alpine glaciers in the Brooks Range have already receded at astonishing rates over the past half-century. If these rates continue, the Brooks Range glaciers will vanish in 80 to 100 years.  

Oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and seismic imaging studies could further negatively impact the Arctic ecosystems by disrupting the wildlife areas and the habits of species such as polar bears and muskoxen. “Scoping for oil includes seismic testing that is done by convoys of 30-ton trucks equipped with massive off-road tires, traversing large portions of the landscape, crushing sensitive plants and soils, impacting disturbance-averse wildlife, and leaving tracks that scar the land for decades,” Lawrence explained to GlacierHub. Climate change effects have already taken a toll on the summer sea ice, leaving many polar bears without a home.  

Caribou graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

Despite its negative environmental effects, oil drilling presents financial incentives for the state of Alaska. Oil is currently trading around $50 a barrel. If developers were to reach the 27 billion barrels of oil believed to be in the U.S.-controlled portion of the Arctic, Alaskans would no doubt reap financial rewards. For this reason, Alaskan politicians like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) support oil exploration which would increase the annual dividend each Alaska resident receives.

The newly proposed draft rule must first go through a period of public comments and pass other bureaucratic agencies, which could take around 18 months, before companies could place bids to start the exploration. Any approval to the memorandum would likely incite political debate and clashes between the administration and environmental groups who aim to protect the area’s biodiversity and glacial mountains.

In addition to this new draft proposal, the DOI under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has further urged President Trump to modify 10 national monuments, calling for the reduction of the boundaries of four of these sites. There is a lack of historical precedent for presidents to reduce the site boundaries of national monuments. For the time being, none of the national protected areas containing glaciers are being threatened with reductions in area. Perhaps the high mountains are so deeply appreciated by the American people that such a move would seem imprudent. Nonetheless, the threats to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge and the national monuments show the importance of vigilance for our nation’s wild and natural spaces, including glaciers.

National Climate Assessment Report Under Review by Trump Administration

The Trump administration is assessing a 545-page draft report about the causes and impacts of global warming, including the imminent threat of glacial retreat. This draft report known as the Climate Science Special Report is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment, and it is undergoing a final interagency review by the administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and 12 other agencies. The New York Times published the draft report on August 7th, which brought a good deal of attention to the document, even though the information had been available at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit internet digital library, since January.

The Trump administration must decide whether to accept or reject a draft report that is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment (Source: Climate Nexus/Twitter).

On August 20th, the Trump administration took initial steps to weaken the effectiveness of the draft report by disbanding the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment, the group that guides the report and helps policymakers and private-sector officials integrate climate analysis into long-term planning, raising questions about the future of the report. The charter for the advisory committee will expire on Sunday, August 27th, and the panel will not be renewed.

The report was written by a team of more than 300 experts from 13 federal agencies. The National Climate Assessment is one of the most rigorously sourced and vetted documents produced by the federal government, based on “peer reviewed journal articles, technical reports by federal agencies, scientific assessments, etc” and produced every four years since 1990. The latest assessment, which ultimately could be rejected by the Trump administration, concludes that the average annual temperature will continue to rise throughout the century, with global temperatures increasing between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades. This could result in longer heat waves, disappearing snow cover, shrinking sea ice, and melting glaciers.

Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, told GlacierHub that shrinking glaciers actually have notable impacts. “For one, they help regulate water flow in glacier-fed rivers, providing meltwater for downstream water use in dry summer months when farmers and hydroelectric power stations most need the water,” he said. “Glacier retreat can also unleash outburst floods and avalanches from the unstable glaciers.” 

People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014 (Source: James Preller).

According to the assessment, the annually averaged ice mass from 37 global reference glaciers “has decreased every year since 1984, a decline expected to continue even if climate were to stabilize.” The findings stirred public interest because they refute statements from the Trump administration about the causes and effects of climate change. The Trump administration, including his cabinet members, have taken a different approach to combatting global warming, repealing environmental regulations and defunding climate research. Earlier this year, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and rolled back policies that former President Barack Obama put in place, such as the Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.

The Trump administration also worked hard to save the coal industry and promised to increase oil and gas production by drilling in protected areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, which will increase emissions. Additionally, Trump has appointed members to his cabinet who openly deny anthropogenic climate change. Agency scientists have found that discussing climate change with EPA leadership has become taboo. The Interior and Agriculture departments have also banned climate change talk and cancelled meetings with climate change experts. The report is one of the administration’s biggest tests to date in regard to the their public opinion on climate change.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, recently told CNBC, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Since Pruitt’s arrival at the EPA, the agency has moved away from its historic practice of publicly posting data collections of emissions from oil and gas companies. To date, the EPA has also taken down more than 1,900 agency web pages that contain climate change information. It is also attempting to undo a water protection rule in order to dismantle previous regulations.

The latest assessment suggests average annual temperature will increase between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

If the Trump administration rejects the information in the latest assessment, the move would be another step away from the global consensus, which recognizes melting glaciers, disappearing snow cover, and the reduction in the volume of mountain glaciers and continental ice sheets. By rejecting the report, Trump’s administration would directly contradict scientific conclusion that “many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.” Specifically, the report concluded that the planet has rapidly warmed over the last 150 years, finding it “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, stated that the report’s disapproval would put in disarray the carefully constructed practices and approach used to build the report, but it would also further galvanize the scientific community to bring more science directly into the public eye. “A report from a different configuration of science organizations would certainly emerge,” Pelto said. “In the short run it will be a challenge to the community, but in the long run it will strengthen this community. Less dependence on the government for both funding and sanctioning is the challenge and the opportunity.”