Polar Bears Put Alaska Oil Development on Thin Ice
ANCHORAGE -- Until now, the Alaskan oil industry and polar bears have coexisted peacefully, but proposals by the U.S. government to list polar bears as endangered by global warming have cast a shadow on oil development on Alaska's North Slope.
A "threatened" listing for the struggling bears, proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, could bring new regulatory hurdles for future exploration and drilling, industry advocates say.
Listing the bears as threatened "has the potential to damage Alaska's and the nation's economy without any benefit to polar bear numbers or their habitat," Gov. Sarah Palin wrote in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that argued against the listing and its protections.
But polar bears, with their icy habitat melting, are more vulnerable than in the past to the oil industry activities, including seismic testing, according to environmentalists.
"The bears' behavior is changing so much that we need to put the brakes on full-bore oil and gas development," said Brendan Cummings, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued to force a listing consideration.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed "threatened" listing is the first Endangered Species Act initiative taken by the U.S. government on behalf of an animal because of global warming.
Government scientists say polar bears are imperiled because of a warming Arctic climate. Studies have documented plunging survival rates for cubs, falling body weights for adults, strandings on land for bears that are used to hunting for prey on vast expanses of ice, and even drowning cases.
Traditionally, the oil industry has contributed to scientific knowledge about the animals, said Marilyn Crockett, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. The companies help wildlife agencies track bears and, through infrared technology employed on aircraft, pinpoint locations of the snowy dens where bears give birth and raise their young cubs, she said.
"There is, quite frankly, more information known about polar bears on the North Slope because of oil and gas development than there would be otherwise," Crockett said.
Companies take care to avoid disturbing the bears for obvious safety reasons, she said. "Interactions between humans and polar bears don't work out well for either species," Crockett said.
But if past oil activities left polar bears alone, the rapidly changing climate alters that balance, environmentalists say.
They point to a new study by U.S. Geological Survey scientists that found a majority of pregnant bears are now denning on land instead of on the ice pack, as had been the previous practice for the animals.
"When you get polar bears on land and you have polar bears in jeopardy from global warming, clearly there is a greater chance of having conflicts," Cummings said.
The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- long eyed for its potential oil and gas riches -- is one of the places that should be off-limits to development because it holds a particularly high concentration of polar bear dens, according to environmentalists.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the seismic tests employed by oil companies to evaluate geology. Those tests, used in the early stages of exploration, expose denning bears to disruptive noise, they say. "Any disturbance can cause the mother bears to abandon their cubs," Cummings said.
Industry representatives believe seismic tests can be conducted safely in polar bear habitats.
"There's been no documentation -- absolutely no documentation -- that any polar bears have been impacted by seismic testing," Crockett said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has until late December to decide whether to list the polar bears as threatened.
A 90-day public-comment period that opened on Jan. 9 has already drawn more than 100,000 comments, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the agency's Alaska regional office.