In an internal memo circulated within the Interior Department earlier this year, government scientists issued a stark warning: The Trump administration’s plans to allow oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could further jeopardize the region’s already fragile polar bear population. The document, authored in September by the head of the state’s US Fish and Wildlife Service office, noted that the threat posed to the bears could make it legally challenging for the agency to authorize a series of seismic surveys of the area’s petroleum reserves—even if steps were taken to mitigate the project’s environmental impact.
The memo, obtained by Mother Jones from a source outside of the Alaska office, describes its finding as a “preliminary analysis” based on “information currently available to us.” That analysis contrasts sharply with the administration’s public rhetoric suggesting that the project would be harmless and should therefore be quickly approved.
The surveys of ANWR’s coastal plain—which would require convoys of 30-ton thumper trucks equipped with massive off-road tires, along with hundreds of support vehicles and crew members—are expected to begin as early as January or February. The vehicles send low-frequency vibrations deep into the ground to assess oil and gas potential. This is the first step in opening up the wildlife refuge to fossil fuel development, which Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said is key to achieving the administration’s oft-stated goal of US “energy dominance.”
Despite the Fish and Wildlife Service document warning of serious environmental and legal obstacles to the project, the administration has continued to downplay the impact that seismic surveys could have on the refuge. FWS would not comment on the memo but said that the application submitted by SAExploration—the company seeking to undertake the surveys—has since been revised and that the agency now intends to issue the necessary permits.
“Over the last several months the application has changed, and as a result, our analyses and findings have changed,” said FWS Alaska regional director Greg Siekaniec—the official who authored the original FWS memo—in an email. Siekaniec did not offer details on how the application had been modified to reduce the threat to polar bears but said that information would be made available when the proposed authorization is published.
SAExploration did not respond to calls or emails to its Houston and Anchorage offices.
Any changes to the proposed surveys are unlikely to satisfy environmentalists, who argue that the original memo raises significant questions about whether the government can legally issue the required permits. “We remain skeptical that any combination of minimization and mitigation will avoid potential lethal impacts of seismic testing on polar bears,” said Jenny Keatinge, an Analyst at Defenders of Wildlife who reviewed the memo. “We will examine the environmental analysis closely for any evidence that the Trump administration has cooked the books.”
In late July, the Bureau of Land Management announced that seismic surveys would likely have little or no impact on the region’s environment and sensitive species, including the Southern Beaufort Sea’s polar bear population, which has declined rapidly in recent years due largely to climate change. A BLM spokesperson told Alaska Public Media that because “there would be insignificant impact,” the Interior Department intended to forego a time-consuming environmental impact statement and instead issue a less rigorous and much shorter analysis known as an environmental assessment.
- “This document confirms that oil and gas exploration would cause injury and death to mother bears and cubs that would threaten the survival of the Southern Beaufort Sea population.”