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Proposed seismic studies could harm wildlife, lead to oil drilling

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Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017 8:00 pm

For the first time in over 30 years, the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could be opened to oil and gas drilling. Previously, the area was closed to commercial drilling due to concerns about impacts on wildlife, like polar bears and caribou.

According to documents first obtained by The Washington Post, the Trump administration is discreetly moving forward to remove regulations in the refuge to allow for energy exploration. Congress has the final say on whether oil drilling can occur, but the Interior Department is in charge of regulating exploratory seismic studies.

A memo sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes ending restrictions that limited drilling from 1984 to 1986 and directs the agency to come up with an environmental assessment and new proposed rules to allow for exploration plans.

Opening the area for drilling has been a top priority for the GOP, according to the New York Times. Republican politicians have been pressed to extract the billions of barrels of oil beneath the Arctic coastal surface, but they’ve been opposed by Alaska’s native tribes and environmentalists who know the area is a breeding ground for caribou herds and a stop for migrating birds.

According to The U.S. Geological Survey, 7.7 billion barrels of technically-recoverable oil lie underneath the coastal plain. The seismic studies to find the oil would cost about $3.6 million. Oil prices are currently near $50 a barrel, so companies might not even want to drill in the near future, but they want to explore to take stock for the future.

“The last thing enviros want is to get a more accurate picture of the resources underneath ANWR because it could be extensive. I don’t think $50 a barrel is going to last forever,” Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, told the New York Times. His organization is known for promoting fossil fuels. “What are they afraid of? What is wrong with learning more about what is going on? All of a sudden they’re afraid of science?”

The issue is that even exploratory studies will definitely disrupt the Arctic’s fragile ecological balance. According to environmental activists, seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to the thawing of the permafrost. Climate change has already led to other changes in the area like polar bears being more active on the plains because their sea ice is disappearing.

Polar bears are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, as well as other Arctic animals like musk oxen. Because the act requires federal agencies to show their actions will not adversely affect the habitat of a listed species, the Interior Department wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct the environmental review.

According to the Wilderness Society, seismic exploration in the 1980s has already resulted in significant impacts to tundra vegetation. The refuge is the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, which contains nearly 200,000 animals.

“For 30 years, Congress has voted nearly 50 times on whether or not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” head of the Alaska Wilderness League Kristen Miller told Digital Journal. “It’s one of our nation’s most majestic places, home to the Porcupine caribou herd, musk oxen, wolves, imperiled polar bears and nearly 200 species of migratory birds that migrate to six continents and all 50 states.”

As The Washington Post points out, the push to open the refuge is coming just as longtime drilling advocates are stepping into key positions in the Interior Department.

David Bernhardt, the department’s second-in-command, once fought unsuccessfully to force then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to allow for exploratory drilling. President Trump’s nominee for the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Joseph Balash, once asked federal officials to hand over a portion of the refuge to the state when he served as Alaska’s natural resources commissioner.

“I’m a geologist. Science is a wonderful thing. It helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the earth,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said during a stop in Anchorage in May, according to the New York Times. “We need to use science to update our understanding of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Congress considers important legislation to responsibly develop there one day.”

So, Zinke is all about science when it comes to risky, exploratory studies that could damage millions of acres of wildlife refuge, but he doesn’t care about the known ecological science telling him this is a terrible idea. Times like these illustrate where the Trump administration’s values lie. Money appears to win over environmental preservation every time.

Rachael Snodgrass is the opinion editor. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelReneeee.

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