Plans to drill Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have underestimated the effects of climate change, one arm of the Interior department is warning another.
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) pointed to several aspects of climate change that were minimized or absent in the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM’s) draft environmental impact statement (EIS). In some cases, the service corrected BLM characterizations of climate research.
It's an unusual—but not unprecedented—critique within an administration that has downplayed climate change in its regulatory actions, experts said. The administration has suffered court defeats after low-balling the emissions impact of projects; the FWS comments suggest Interior also might be underestimating how global warming affects the projects themselves.
"The effects of a changing arctic environment should be further addressed within the EIS. There is a large body of literature that describes the potential landscape level changes on the North Slope, including changes in permafrost, hydrology, land cover and infrastructure stability," the service said, pointing to several specific studies.
"We recommend that studies like these be included in the analysis of potential impacts to various development scenarios," said the formal comments signed by director of the FWS Alaska Region, Greg Siekaniec, a career official.
The service corrected BLM's statement that the biosphere is gaining mass as it sequesters a significant portion of human's carbon dioxide emissions.
"Please remove this line as a significant fraction of human-sourced CO2 is also not sequestered by the biosphere, resulting in increasing CO2 atmospheric concentrations and increasingly obvious patterns of climate change effects, particularly in the Arctic," the service said.
The impacts of climate change could affect endangered species protections, which in turn could alter demands on drilling projects.
FWS said the draft "does not accurately assess" climate impacts on birds, and rebuffed insinuations that longer summers could help birds by bringing more insects and lengthening mating seasons. The service also pointed to already-visible effects from the landscape becoming more dry in some places and newly inundated from glacier melt in others.
"Contrary to what is stated in the DEIS, avian habitat is changing rapidly, both on the coast and inland tundra areas" FWS said. "Please ensure the EIS accurately assesses the potential impacts to birds and their habitat resulting from a changing climate based on the best available science."
Sea-level rise, sea-ice loss and stronger storm surges will make conditions on the barrier islands more precarious for birds and polar bears than BLM acknowledges, potentially driving them inland toward operations, the service said.
More flooding heightens the risk of drilling operations causing contamination of entire populations, especially with heavy metals, FWS said.
The service also urged BLM to correct or remove its assertion that more saltwater intrusion could be a positive, saying there's no evidence that "tundra may be colonized by salt-tolerant species and develop into salt marsh, a rare but important post-breeding habitat for geese."
The comments were dated March 13, a day after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, released leaked internal memos on the scientific "unknowns" of Arctic drilling. PEER said Interior had hidden the memos and buried unfavorable science. The department and Siekaniec said that was false (Greenwire, 12 March).
Legal experts said these comments probably won't change the trajectory of ANWR drilling by themselves, but they could offer more grist for the lawsuits that will inevitably challenge the leasing—and could drag out beyond the 2020 election. They could also form the basis for Congress rolling back the areas available to drill.
"Sounds like authentic science is raising its head above water, which is refreshing," said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law scholar at Columbia University.
"The fact that another agency has raised the [climate] issue makes it more perilous to ignore it in the final EIS, but it does not necessarily compel a different outcome," he said.
It's notable that BLM is facing such basic scientific concerns after a draft has already been published, said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
"They're ignoring existing, peer-reviewed literature, and two, they have made no attempt to fill the glaring science gaps on impacts to the refuge," she said. "There's a lot more that we need to know before we undertake such a massive project in this wildlife refuge."
An Interior spokeswoman said the FWS submission numbered among the 4,000 unique comments on the draft, which received more than a million comments overall.
"BLM has an obligation to consider all of these comments—including those from its sister agency—and anticipates they will inform the Final EIS (FEIS) in multiple ways," press secretary Molly Block said.
Read the FWS comments here.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net