Obama administration releases revised draft environmental study on Arctic drilling

The federal agency that oversees hydrocarbon exploration in waters off America’s coasts released Friday a new study of the impacts of drilling in the Chukchi sea.

Coming about ten months after a federal appeals court rejected a prior effort by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the draft supplemental environmental impact statement concludes that there is a high likelihood of a large oil spill in the fragile Arctic region if development of exploration leases proceeds.

Environmental advocacy group leaders used the occasion to sharply criticize the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to consider allowing Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies to hunt for fossil fuels in the far north.

“Companies are not prepared to operate in unforgiving Arctic waters,” Susan Murray, a senior vice president at Oceana, said in a statement. “There is no proven way to respond to an oil spill in icy conditions and almost no infrastructure from which to launch a response to any kind of accident.”

One significant worry for the environmental community is the impact drilling would have on the region’s wildlife. The Chukchi sea provides habitat for several imperiled species, including the polar bear, walrus, and bowhead whales.

“Whether it will be from an almost inevitable oil spill, or from the unavoidable noises from seismic surveys, vessel and platform stabilization, underwater acoustic communications, seafloor hydrocarbon processing, and re-injection well compressors; we know that oil and gas operations will disrupt the habitat for Arctic marine life which we know so little about – and upon which we may very well depend,” Michael Stocker, Ocean Conservation Research’s director, said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled in January that a prior environmental impact statement failed to consider all of the possible impacts of drilling in the region.The prior EIS assumed that only about 1 billion barrels of oil would be extracted from beneath the roiling waves in the Chukchi; the new draft EIS considers that production will total about 4.3 billion barrels.

Shell experienced numerous difficulties in a 2012 attempt to prepare for exploration activities, including the grounding of a drilling vessel.

The new EIS will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 7. A 45-day comment period will occur before BOEM can make a final decision about whether to permit exploration activity to commence in 2015.

The $2.7 billion lease at issue was finalized in Feb. 2008.

Obama adds to California national monument

Image

Image courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

President Barack Obama has used his pen to grant additional protections to more than 1,600 spectacular acres along California’s Mendocino coast.

On March 11 Obama designated the Point Arena-Stornetta unit of the California Coastal National Monument.

“As some of you know, in my State of the Union address I talked about taking any actions that I could to ensure that this incredible gift of American lands, the natural bounty that has been passed on to us from previous generations, is preserved for future generations,” Obama said during a signing ceremony. “And I pledged to act wherever I could to make sure that our children, our grandchildren are going to be able to look upon this land of ours with the same wonder as we have.”

The country’s newest addition to the inventory of national monuments is situated along about 12 miles of the Pacific coast, near the tiny town of Point Arena. The Point Arena-Stornetta unit connects the beach in Manchester State Park to the town and includes the estuary of the Garcia River, cliffs, dunes, and meadows.

Rixanne Wehren, the coastal committee chairperson for the Sierra Club’s Mendocino Group, said that the new preserve is unique because of the undeveloped nature of the area’s coastline and the scenic features included within it.

“It has beautiful coastline resources, both based in the water and based on the land,” she said. “It also has one of the very few waterfalls that comes directly off the land into the ocean and many tide pools and near-shore habitats that are quite prolific with sea life, all observable from the shore.”

These picturesque magnets for tourists are not the only reasons the Point Arena-Stornetta unit has significant environmental value. It is also home to at least four threatened or endangered species, including Behren’s silverspot butterflyCalifornia red-legged frog, Point Arena mountain beaver, and snowy plover.

Salmon may also benefit from the new preserve. Chinook and coho salmon are native to the Garcia River watershed, as are steelhead. The chinook run is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, as are the region’s steelhead, while the coho stock is endangered.

While the protection of the coastal prairie and beach south of that river probably will not affect upstream impacts on the two endangered runs, advocates for conserving California’s fisheries lauded Obama’s move as a boost for public-private partnerships and recreational fishing.

“Designating the Point Arena-Stornetta public lands as a national monument is a no brainer, for fish and for people,” Brian Johnson, director of Trout Unlimited’s California Program, said.

Obama emphasized the environmental, educational, and economic value of the Point Arena-Stornetta lands at the signing ceremony.

“We are talking about over 1,600 acres of incredible coastline in California that reflects the incredible diversity of flora and fauna,” the president said before signing the document that invoked the Antiquities Act. “It is a place where scientists do research; where people who just want to experience the great outdoors can take advantage of it. It is a huge economic boost for the region.”

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management acquired most of the Point Arena-Stornetta land in 2005, when the family that had owned it for three generations sold 1,132 acres to the government for about $7.8 million. Other conservation efforts added 533 more acres in the immediate area to the BLM’s holdings.

Former President Bill Clinton established the California Coastal National Monument in January 2000. It protects more than 20,000 reefs, islands, and rocks that serve as important habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

The New York Times recently highlighted the Point Arena-Stornetta area as third among 52 places suggested for tourists to visit during 2014.

BLM must develop a management plan for the new national monument addition by March 2017.

NOTE: This post was updated on March 23, 2014.

Image courtesy Rixanne Wehren, GeoGraphics Maps & Photos
Image courtesy Rixanne Wehren, GeoGraphics Maps & Photos

State Department releases EIS on Keystone XL pipeline

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is one step closer to President Barack Obama’s desk, as the U.S. Department of State released Friday a final environmental impact study on the controversial project.

The Keystone XL pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Morgan, Mont. to Steel City, Neb. About 85 percent of the oil would come from tar sands that extend across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and, especially, Alberta.

The process of removing that oil from tar sands and its use as an energy source could add as much as 93 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, according to a Dec. 2013 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute.

A July 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that, during a 50-year period, the pipeline could cause at least 1 billion more metric tons of the greenhouse gas to be pumped into the atmosphere than would be discharged without it.

The EIS indicates that the State Department, at least, does not concur with opinions that the Keystone XL project will cause an increase in global warming.

“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios,” it says.

The question is a crucial one because Obama has said that he will not approve Keystone XL if its construction would add to the problem of climate change.

The rest of the oil that would be transported by the pipeline would be drawn from the Bakken Shale Formation in western North Dakota.

Environmental advocacy organizations wasted little time before calling on Obama to reject the pipeline.

“Even though the State Department continues to downplay clear evidence that the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to tar sands expansion and significantly worsen carbon pollution, it has, for the first time, acknowledged that the proposed project could accelerate climate change,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the international program director for Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “President Obama now has all the information he needs to reject the pipeline.”

The publication of the EIS is the latest step in an odyssey that has lasted for nearly six years. President Obama rejected the developer’s first permit request in 2011 because of concerns about the impact on Nebraska’s Sand Hills and its underlying aquifer. The proposed route was later changed, which necessitated both a new permit application and a new environmental impact review of the project.

A 2004 executive order by former President George W. Bush requires a presidential permit for oil and gas facilities that cross U.S. international borders.

The release of a supplemental environmental impact statement triggers a 30-day comment period, which will commence on Feb. 5. Once the deadline for submission of those comments passes, secretary of state John Kerry will make his recommendation about whether the White House should grant the presidential permit required to build the trans-national conduit for oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands.

A coalition of environmental groups argued, in a Jan. 29 letter to Kerry, that the State Department needs to consider the cumulative climate change impacts of both the Keystone XL pipeline and the expansion of the nearby Alberta Clipper pipeline. That project would,if expansion is approved, carry about 880,000 barrels of crude per day. An amendment to an existing presidential permit is required for Enbridge, Inc., the developer of both pipelines, to increase the Alberta Clipper’s capacity.

Construction of the southern half of the pipeline, which will carry oil from Cushing, Okla. to the Gulf of Mexico coast, has recently been completed.

Federal appeals court rejects U.S. plan for oil drilling in Chukchi Sea

The Obama administration’s plan to extract billions of barrels of oil from Arctic seas off the northwest coast of Alaska hit a roadblock in federal court last week.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Jan. 22 that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement’s ‘s environmental impact study was flawed because it assumed a production level far lower than the potential oil production from the project.

The case centers on a lease sale advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush. Called Lease Sale 193, the 2008 decision affects about 30 million acres of the marine region, an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The sale of 487 exploration leases in Lease Sale 193 produced more than $2.6 billion in revenue for Washington, with about $2.1 billion of that coming from Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Opponents of the BOEM plan to allow drilling in the area point to the risks it poses to the region’s diverse wildlife.

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships,” Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director, said in a statement. “It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds.”

The opponents, who include 12 conservation groups, one native Alaskan advocacy organization, and one native Alaskan village, argued that, by underestimating the amount of oil that could be extracted from the area if drilling occurred, BOEM was risking a huge oil spill that would devastate that pristine area.

“This mistake means that the EIS gives only the best case scenario for environmental harm,” Eric Grafe, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, said. “All is based on the number of barrels produced. If they get the number wrong, they understate all those other impacts.”

Grafe said that, even if only 1 billion barrels of oil were produced in the area that is subject to the oil lease sale, there would be a 40 percent chance of an oil spill.

“Because it’s so remote and so inaccessible, the assumption is that you’d have to find a significant amount of oil to justify the infrastructure that would have to be put in,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing. No roads, no pipelines. It’s a pristine area. It’s precisely because of that absence of infrastructure that it’s so risky to drill there. If there is an oil spill, you’re not going to have the resources to respond to that oil spill and you can’t clean it up in an icy environment anyway.”

The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed that the government’s reliance upon an estimate of 1 billion barrels of oil caused its study of environmental impacts from the drilling activity  to be flawed.

“In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced,” Judge William Fletcher, the lead author of the appellate panel’s opinion, wrote.

There may be as many as 15 billion barrels of oil that are economically viable to extract beneath the Chukchi Sea, according to 1 2011 BOEM analysis.

Environmentalists also point to the contribution to ongoing climate change that extracted oil would make.

“We can’t afford to burn the oil found there,” Grafe said. “We shouldn’t be getting more oil out to burn it if we are going to stay within climate change parameters.”

Shell commenced drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but experienced numerous problems. A  March 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Shell committed a series of logistical and planning blunders in connection with its Lease Sale 193-related activities in the Arctic.

“They screwed it up really badly,” Grafe said. “Here’s a company saying ‘we’re ready to drill, we can do it safely’ and it’s a giant fiasco. Nothing goes right.”

Among those problems:

* a containment dome used to prevent the spread of oil spills that was being tested in Puget Sound was “crushed like a beer can,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior official who observed the test;

* a drill ship called the Noble Discoverer slipped anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, AK, then had to quickly be moved from Shell’s exploration site in the Chukchi Sea because an ice storm was rapidly approaching;

* U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found a litany of maritime regulation violations on the vessel and later referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice;

* the Noble Discoverer later caught fire and exploded while in port in the Aleutian Islands; and

* another drilling ship, the Kulluck, broke free of a tow and ran aground in Kodiak, AK in Dec. 2012. Shell was trying to move the ship to Seattle to avoid paying Alaska property taxes on vessels used for oil and gas exploration.

“Doing that in the winter when there’s lots of storms in the Gulf of Alaska is risky,” Grafe said. “But they did it.”

The incident involving the Kulluck drill barge remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 the U.S. Department of Interior has authority over oil and gas exploration and extraction on submerged lands along the country’s coasts. That cabinet department, in turn, includes a specialized agency – BOEM – to handle leasing of the submerged lands for oil and gas development activity. BOEM used to be known as the Minerals Management Service. The Obama administration changed its name in 2010, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale dispute will now go back before a U.S. district judge in Alaska. He will decide whether the holders of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea can proceed to drill after a modified environmental impact statement is prepared or whether the lease sales should be voided altogether.

Judge Ralph Beistline had previously rejected BOEM’s environmental impact statement in a 2010 decision. Later, after the Obama administration made changes to the EIS and proceeded with Lease Sale 193, Beistline upheld that decision. It was that 2011 order that was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last week.

Grafe said that the appeals court’s opinion gives BOEM time to decide whether to abandon the Chukchi Sea leases.

“They could put out a draft EIS and, while they’re doing that process to get a more accurate assessment, not allow any activities to happen on those leases,” he explained. “At the end of that EIS process, when we have a document that more accurately informs the public about the risks, they can reconsider the decision about whether the leases should be there.”

Grafe was referring to an environmental impact statement, which is the study of the environmental impacts likely to result from a “major federal action,” such as marine oil leases, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Shell announced this week that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas this year.

The case is Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell, No. 12-35287.

Chukchi Sea ice - photo courtesy NOAA - photo by Karen E. Frey Beluga whale pod in Chukchi sea - photo courtesy NOAA, photo by Laura Morse Walruses in the Chukchi Sea - photo courtesy USGS

Kulluck aground - photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Top photo: Ice on Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Karen E. Frey)

Second photo: Beluga whale pod in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Laura Morse)

Third photo: Walrus in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Fourth photo: The drill ship Kulluck aground in Kodiak, AK, Jan. 1, 2013 (photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)

Ninth Circuit denies en banc review in Drakes Bay Oyster case

A federal appeals court has denied a request that a panel decision upholding the Obama administration’s move to evict an oyster farm from Point Reyes National Seashore be reviewed by a larger group of appellate judges.

In an order released Jan. 14, the court rejected a request for en banc review. As is the usual practice in such circumstances, the court did not provide substantive explanations for why review by 11 judges on the court of the three-judge panel opinion was refused. The order said only that no judge outside the panel voted to grant such review.

The decision in Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Jewell upheld a decision by former Interior secretary Ken Salazar not to renew a lease that allowed an oyster farming operation to harvest shellfish within the confines of an area in the Point Reyes National Seashore that is eligible for wilderness protection.

The lessee argued that it had a right, under a provision of a federal appropriations law, to have its lease renewed and that the Obama administration had not completed environmental impact studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Ninth Circuit panel, over the dissent of one of the three judges who sat on it, rejected those arguments in an opinion released in Sept. 2013.

Fish and Wildlife Service crushes ivory

Six tons of confiscated ivory were destroyed in a rock-crusher near Denver on Thursday as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signaled a renewed focus on stopping the ongoing slaughter of African elephants.

The operation, which involved the nation’s entire stock of confiscated ivory, occurred at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and was witnessed by representatives of African nations.

“Rising demand for ivory is fueling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent,” secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “We will continue to work aggressively with the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies around the world to investigate, arrest and prosecute criminals who traffic in ivory. We encourage other nations to join us in destroying confiscated ivory stockpiles and taking other actions to combat wildlife crime.”

The Obama administration’s move follows the establishment of the White House Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. President Barack Obama included the creation of the panel in a July 1 executive order focused on increasing federal efforts to stop the trade in imperiled wildlife species.

The ivory that was crushed on Thursday represented the remains of thousands of elephants, according to a Department of Interior press release.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe explained that rising demand for ivory around the world, especially in Asia, threatens a return to “devastating declines” in elephant populations experienced in earlier decades.

“The United States is part of the problem, because much of the world’s trade in wild animal and plant species – both legal and illegal – is driven by U.S. consumers or passes through our ports on the way to other nations. We have to be part of the solution,” Ashe said.

An estimated 35,000 elephants per year are killed to support the ivory trade.

Loxodonta africana was once ubiquitous in Africa, ranging across as many as 37 of the continent’s countries. Numbering 3-5 million during the 19th century, the species is now estimated to total about 700,000 individuals and their distribution is increasingly fragmented.

The population is growing in eastern and southern Africa, but falling fast in central and western Africa.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the African elephant as a vulnerable species.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service