Climate Change and Arctic Drilling Threaten Polar Bears’ Extinction

The Trump Administration finally released the results of a long-awaited study on the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development in the Arctic on the endangered polar bear population and, not surprisingly, it was bad news for the bears.  The study by the U.S. Geological Survey, as reported by The Washinton Post’s Juliette Eilperin, demonstrated that polar bears are highly vulnerable to climate change and that the proposed oil drilling would diminish their habitat, causing the remaining animals new stress. The head of the agency explained the months-long delay in the study’s release saying he needed to be “satisfied” with the science in the report before releasing it to the public.

Why This Matters: The head of an agency should review a major work product before it is released to the public.  But delaying the release of a scientific report for months because it does not square with the administration’s policy viewpoint is another matter altogether.  An agency head must review any work for which he/she will be held accountable and it is fair for them to ask for a briefing on the findings and ask questions. But refusing to release the report because it does not support a pro-drilling narrative is completely unacceptable, a position even he could not defend.

Alaska Drilling Not Just In ANWR

The Trump administration is hoping to expand drilling in other parts of Alaska in addition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Last November it proposed a plan that would allow oil drilling “on over three-quarters of the nation’s largest piece of unprotected wilderness, overhauling a 2013 plan that limited development on the Alaskan reserve” according to reports at the time by The Post.  it is a 23-million acre area called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is roughly the size of Indiana, that is both one of the most ecologically valuable wilderness areas in the country, and also on of the most promising oil prospects we have.  But to open this area to drilling by ConocoPhillips’ $3 billion Willow Project, the Interior Department had to first study the impact of opening it on the endangered polar bear populations in Alaska

Fish and Wildlife Service Demanded Release

According to The Post, the study’s authors concluded that “The long-term persistence of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) is threatened by sea-ice loss due to climate change, which is concurrently providing an opportunity in the Arctic for increased anthropogenic activities including natural resource extraction.”   Climate change is causing the bears to be at risk of extinction, in other words.  In addition, the study found that “34 percent of the western U.S. Arctic’s maternal dens are on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has implications for the Trump administration’s plans to auction oil and gas leases on the refuge.”  The agency head held up the study, asking why researchers could not count every single polar bear maternal den in an area that spans tens of millions of square miles, according to two internal memos obtained by The Post.


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