Outgoing President Barack Obama executed a critical order on Tuesday by banning any new gas and oil drilling in federal waters in Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. The move comes as an environmental safeguard prior to the new Republican administration taking office January 20th lead by President elect Donald Trump.
Utilizing a 1950s-era law termed the Outer Continental Shelf Act, Obama used the power of President to limit areas from mineral leasing and drilling. Trump’s incoming administration will only be able to challenge and change the edict by fighting it in court according to several environmental groups agreeing with the order.
Map of the Arctic waters to the north of Alaska just protected by President Obama. BOEM image.
The Alaskan waters ban affects 115 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea as well as 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic Ocean. A main concern of environmental advocates regarding fuel exploration in the region is the devastating affects an oil spill or gas leakage in the oceans would have on the ecosystems. Such a remote and harsh climate would severely limit the capabilities of clean-up crews and emergency response teams. Wildlife such as polar bears, whales, seals and fish would be harmed and populations of the animals could be irreversibly destroyed.
Trump has continually stated that he will seek to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the waters north of Alaska. Recent releases from his energy transition team predicted increases in production in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These forecasts have been dealt a serious blow and are likely “dead in the water” at this time. Trump spokespeople would not comment on the actions.
Very limited oil and gas exploration has been happening in recent years as less expensive shale oil production primarily out of Texas and North Dakota has been the priority. Drilling off Arctic shores in Alaska is more expensive and risky in nature. Most notably, Shell Oil pulled out of the waters just last year following a shipping accident and limitation laws discovered by environmental groups limiting exploration.
Proponents for drilling such as the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, stated that Trump would be able to use a presidential memorandum to lift the ban rendering the move by Obama obsolete. “We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy,” said Erik Milito, API’s upstream director.
A view over the now protected Arctic waters from Barrow, Alaska. NASA photo.
Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are in agreement with protecting Arctic waters. The two leaders are initiating joint actions and these actions “reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.” stated Obama.
In similar action Trudeau and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters off limits indefinitely to any future offshore Arctic gas and oil licensing. These sanctions will be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment. Obama’s action, unlike the five year review applied to the Canadian law, contains no designated analysis period outlined for the U.S. law.
Under current law, authorization is not granted for reversing a previous presidential order of this kind so efforts by Trump to challenge this move will most likely need to be taken up in court via a lawsuit.
“No president has ever tried to undo a permanent withdrawal of an ocean area from leasing eligibility,” said Neil Lawrence, Alaska director and attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Canadian Arctic polar bears are swimming longer distances to find suitable ice in which to hunt seals and rear their young. Scientists are deeply concerned that such swims of several days duration, particularly in the Beaufort Sea, are the cause of population decline in the Arctic.
Canadian researchers tracked 58 adult female polar bears as well as 18 young male and female bears between 2007 and 2012 in the Beaufort Sea. Another group of 59 adult females in the Hudson Bay region were tracked as well. Since adult males typically remove their collars and their larger neck size generally makes it difficult to attach the collars, only the females were tracked.
Polar bears are swimming longer distances especially in the Beaufort Sea. Andrew Derocher photo.
Overall, the Hudson Bay polar bears, those including the Churchill population, rarely made long-distance swims.
However, in the Beaufort Sea, during times when sea ice dissipates, many of the polar bears made at least one swim of 50 km or more while 69 per cent did so in 2012, a record low year for ice coverage.
“More and more animals in the population are being caught in places that they just can’t stay – so the ice that they’re on is breaking up, the floes are too small, and they have to make longer distance movements to try to find better habitat,” said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta biologist highly involved in the study.
Researchers identified a total of 115 long-distance swims during the study, 100 of them in the Beaufort Sea, with the average distance being 92 km or thew equivalent of 3.4 days. Polar bears average swimming speed is around two km/hour. The bears have very little rest while swimming, rarely stopping and since swimming burns calories at a higher rate than walking, body fat needed for Arctic survival burns away rapidly. One female was tracked on a nine – day, 687 km swim lost her cub on the journey while also dropping 22 per cent of her weight.
Polar bear sow and cub swimming in the Hudson Bay. John Lehmann photo.
The polar bear population in the Beaufort Sea has fallen more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years, according to Derocher. The long – distance swimming could have a huge bearing on this data. “So it is a concern that this is probably one of the factors associated with the population decline,” he said.
However, the study found no direct evidence that swimming contributes to the population decline. The polar bears tracked survived all the swims recorded in the study. Researchers were unable to track survival rates of cubs whom may have been with them other than the one extended swim referred to above. Due to hypothermia exposure to cubs, mothers with young seemed to make fewer marathon swims the researchers noted.
“Polar bears are well adapted to swimming,” Derocher said, “but of course, not all polar bears are created equal when it comes to the ability to swim.” Younger bears do not have the insulating body fat nor the stamina for prolonged water journeys.
Until the 1980’s Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea always melted close to shore as summer arrived. With the ice edge visible from land, polar bears utilize that edge during migration as a way to manage their hunting grounds. As the Arctic warms and the summer sea ice edge extends farther and farther north, polar bears are forced to swim long expanses to find stable ice.
Polar bears will need to find alternate food sources in order to survive. Andrew Derocher photo.
The dynamic Hudson Bay polar bear population has adapted to ice completely melting in summertime by spending long periods of time on land and in the shallows. Reliant on other food sources, polar bears in this region, including Churchill, have adapted somewhat and continue to develop ways to augment their winter food sources. Beluga whales, berries, bird – eggs and land seal – kills are more common food sources these days for the animals.
Polar bear and ravens scavenge a seal kill carcass on land in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Brad Josephs photo.
Despite Scientists previous predictions that polar bears would need to swim farther as climate change causes chaos with Arctic sea ice, this was the first study showing enough data to actually show the correlation.
Biologists from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U. S. Geological Survey teamed with Local residents from Kaktovik, a remote island in the Beaufort Sea, to rescue a polar bear ensnared in a lost fishing net. The 1,000 pound male polar bear was spotted in the sea struggling due to the netting wrapped around his body. Biologists flew close to the bear and shot him with a tranquilizer dart. Local fishermen, nearby in their boats, rushed in to buoy the bear to prevent him from drowning while sedated.
A polar bear that was trapped in a fishing net rests on shore after being freed. U S geological Survey photo.
Biologists worked feverishly to untangle the bear and he was released back into the wild after they deemed him injury free.
USGS asserts that climate change continues to affect polar bear habitats and they have established a Polar Bear Recovery Team to protect them. While individual rescues such as this aide in saving small numbers of polar bears, each one, especially females, can be crucial to the populations overall strength. close contact with sedated bears can also reveal scientific information to help evaluate the species.
Polar bear resting after sedation and removal of fishing net. U. S. geological Survey photo.