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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Industry gets immunity in polar bear, walrus deaths

Politicians and lobbyists are filling the media these days with speeches about how benign oil drilling will be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We are constantly told that wildlife won't be harmed by drilling activities. New technology has such a low impact, we're told, that polar bears, caribou and musk oxen will, in fact, thrive around the small cities created by drilling operations.

If that's the case, then why did the oil industry seek immunity for walrus and polar bear deaths that occur as a result of their work at neighborhing Prudhoe Bay? Let's take a look.

The industry in 2000 applied for and obtained an "incidental take" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see Federal Register, Nov. 28, 2003, page 66744). Incidental take, in federal parlance, means to kill. The permit allowed oil companies working along the edge of the Beaufort Sea to harrass and kill polar bear and walrus in the course of their extraction and exploration activities. This permit expired in March, 2003, then was renewed until March 28, 2005.

The filing clearly states the permit was not required. So, why get it at all?

Because the industry knows that oil drilling might kill walrus and polar bear, and they want immunity from fines and legal liability. It's a real enough possibility that they want to protect themselves. That's quite a different story than we've been hearing lately about ANWR.

The "incidental take" permit actually applies to all offshore waters from Barrow east to the Canadian border, which includes waters off of ANWR, but not ANWR itself. The permit was sought by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association on behalf of its members, a virtual who's-who of the global oil business. The group originally asked for the permit to run until 2008, but regulators extended it only until last month, citing the need for more data. So it's likely a renewal will be sought.

Walrus are not common in the area, but the polar bear population in the Southern Beaufort Sea was estimated at 2,273 in 2002. In 30 years of oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope, only two polar bears have been killed as a direct result of oil development. In winter 1968-1969, an industry employee shot and killed a polar bear. In 1990 a female polar bear was killed at a drill site on the west side of Camden Bay (we don't know how). But the list of harmful activities is much longer.

Noise, vibration and lights from oil extraction can disrupt feeding and denning habits. The biggest risk is to females with cubs, which den up for the winter. Oil development could cause them to leave their dens when cubs are vulnerable. Female polar bears are not especially prolific breeders (averaging two cubs every 3 to 4 years), so this sort of disruption could hurt the population.

Oil spills are another significant problem. Polar bears explosed to oil can suffer health problems, fur loss and death. Regulators estimated the likelihood of one or more spills greater than 1,000 barrels in size occurring in the marine environment at 1 to 5 percent during the period covered by the regulations. The probability of a spill causing death to one or more bears was 0.4-1.3 percent.

But these numbers are only a guess, because they are based on data gathered outside the Arctic. In other words, they do not take into account the extra risk of spills inherent in working around permafrost and sea ice. Officials called this "the greatest source of uncertaintly in our calculations." They admitted the likelihood of polar bear deaths could be double their estimates.

The point is that this is what's happening with the "new drilling technology". The industry is worried about killing polar bears and walruses with the new technology. And remember that the industry wanted this permit to run until 2008.

Some people still believe that oil drilling in a wildlife refuge won't harm wildlife. But the oil companies aren't among them.

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