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Scientists fear a planned hunt for oil on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this winter could harm female polar bears and their newborn cubs that live along the southern edge of the Beaufort Sea.

Steven Kazlowski/Minden Pictures

Plan to map oil in Alaska’s Arctic refuge ignores environmental risks, critics say

A plan to crisscross parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with earth-shaking machines that help map underground oil formations is drawing criticism from scientists who study the remote Alaskan wilderness.

Two federal agencies in recent weeks have issued preliminary decisions concluding that the work, which will span 1400 square kilometers, poses no significant risk to the landscape or animals living there, including federally protected polar bears. The decisions are part of a fast-paced push to launch oil exploration inside the refuge in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

But some scientists argue there is too little research to support that conclusion, and note that similar mapping techniques used in the area in the past created scars on the landscape that have lasted for decades. They fear the new exploration could damage an extensive area of tundra and harm hibernating polar bears.

The 6000-square-kilometer coastal plain of the Arctic refuge has been the subject of a decadeslong struggle between oil industry backers and environmentalists. The vast, largely untouched landscape is home to polar bears and the Porcupine caribou herd, an important source of food and culture for native peoples there. It also harbors an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress authorized oil extraction there for the first time.

The proposed seismic exploration, which could begin in January 2021, is a crucial step in helping oil companies pinpoint the size and location of oil reserves. Vehicles that look like a cross between a bus and a bulldozer would traverse the frozen tundra in a rectangular grid pattern 200 meters by 400 meters. The machines are designed to shake the ground. The tremors reflect off buried geologic formations, creating acoustic patterns that can reveal what’s below, much like radar.

Seismic techniques used in the Arctic have evolved to the point where they have minimal impacts, asserted Shelly Jones, Arctic district manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is overseeing oil exploration inside the refuge. Jones pointed to similar work in Alaska’s nearby National Petroleum Reserve that, she said, had “no significant impacts, including to wildlife, subsistence, or vegetation.”

On 15 December, BLM issued its preliminary finding that the work would cause no serious damage to the environment. One week earlier, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which manages the refuge, released a draft permit allowing the seismic project in prime polar bear habitat.

The work would involve as many as 180 people, many of them living in temporary bunkhouses dragged across the tundra as the work progresses. Workers would use lighter vehicles with rubber tires when possible, ensure they travel on layers of snow deep enough to protect tundra vegetation, and use heat-sensing radar to scan for hibernating polar bears buried beneath the snow, according to the BLM analysis. The work would be done by Houston-based SAExploration on behalf of the native-owned Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.

Kaktovik has a big stake in the effort. The small native village of 260 sits on the northern edge of the refuge. Its corporation controls 372 square kilometers of land inside the reserve, which would be part of this survey. If oil is found there, it could provide a major economic boost for the village residents. “We live in a cash economy even in the Arctic, and we need jobs and an economy to survive,” says Matthew Rexford, a lifelong Kaktovik resident and president of the native corporation.

But some Arctic scientists say the effects of wintertime seismic work have been studied very little. And what research has been done found it can leave marks that, in some cases, are evident 3 decades later.

The tundra still has scars from the only previous seismic exploration in the refuge, done in the winter in the mid-1980s. Vehicles crushed vegetation in the spongy, damp tundra, allowing water to pool and melting sections of the underlying permafrost, causing parts of the land to sink. Routes where heavy equipment was dragged to create temporary camps showed the most lasting damage, says Janet Jorgenson, a plant ecologist who spent 3 decades as a scientist at the refuge. In a recent paper, she and colleagues reported that 5% of the camp trails still showed damage in 2018. They estimated that seismic work across the entire coastal plain could cause moderate or severe damage to 122 square kilometers of tundra.

There might be less harm in the part of the refuge targeted for this winter’s project, because it is some of the flattest terrain, Jorgenson says. That portion of the refuge shows few signs of the earlier survey. But risks could be higher now, because permafrost has grown more vulnerable as the Arctic warms, she says.

Jorgenson and her husband and fellow ecologist, Torre Jorgenson, also warn the recent evaluations contain flaws. BLM’s environmental study misclassified vegetation covering nearly half of the area as being at low risk of damage, when it is actually at high risk, she says. Also, she notes that the plan calls for vehicles to ferry equipment overland between Deadhorse and Katktovik, including 77 kilometers through the refuge, rather than taking a route over sea ice that would spare the vegetation.

“They’ve just kind of developed this storyline that their impacts are negligible so they don’t really need to even bother studying them,” Torre Jorgenson says. “When you start moving that scale of activity onto one of our crown jewels of the national refuge system, they need to be held to a higher standard.”

Meanwhile, a leading polar bear scientist fears seismic machinery could disturb or squash hibernating female bears and cubs, whose dens are hidden under snow. The number of bears living at the southern edge of the Beaufort Sea has dwindled by 40% since 1980 to approximately 900. “This population is already in dire straits,” says Steven Amstrup, a senior scientist at Polar Bears International, who led polar bear research from 1980 to 2010 for the U.S. Geological Survey. “Does going in there and potentially disrupting them make any sense? In the big picture, I don’t think so.”

FWS, however, found the effects would be negligible. It estimates the area being studied will host three polar bear dens. And it predicted that at most three bears might be bothered by the work and no bears would be killed, thanks to measures to find and avoid the dens.

Amstrup has doubts. He notes that the radar used to scan for the bear found fewer than half the dens when used at nearby oilfields, according to a recent study.

The federal government plans to auction the first oil drilling leases inside the refuge on 6 January 2021. Environmental groups and some native organizations have sued, asking U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, appointed by former President Barack Obama, to halt the seismic work and the lease sale.