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Vol. 16, No. 4 Week of January 23, 2011
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Speak to us please

Native groups to sue over polar bear habitat, citing lack of consultation

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

Alaska Native regional corporations Arctic Slope Regional Corp., NANA Regional Corp., Bering Straits Native Corp. and Calista Corp. have joined with the North Slope Borough, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and six northern Alaska village corporations to announce an intent to within 60 days sue the U.S. Department of the Interior over its designation of critical habitat for the polar bear.

The State of Alaska has already announced its intent to sue over the habitat designation.

In early December the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 187,000 square miles of the Alaska Arctic offshore, Arctic barrier islands and Alaska’s northern coast as critical habitat for the polar bear, having listed the bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008. Fish and Wildlife has said that the recession of sea ice as the Earth’s climate warms could drive the iconic Arctic animals into extinction.

Under the terms of the ESA, Fish and Wildlife has to evaluate the economic impacts of a critical habitat designation, to achieve the necessary tradeoffs between conservation and people’s economic well being. In the case of the polar bear, the agency said that the only significant impact would be the cost of additional ESA consultations, a cost that the agency estimated at $669,000 over a 29-year period.

No consultation

But the Native groups planning the lawsuit against Interior say that Fish and Wildlife never consulted with northern Alaska communities over the potential impacts on those communities of the habitat designation. And the agency’s assessment of potential economic impacts is grossly underestimated, said Tara Sweeney, senior vice president of external affairs for ASRC, in a Jan. 18 press briefing announcing the lawsuit.

“This designation is flawed and an affront to Alaska Natives and we intend to fight it,” Sweeney said. “It is critical to our communities and our people that our collective voice be heard.”

Sweeney said that Fish and Wildlife did not take into account the costs of litigation, project delays, deferred oil production, project closures and project uncertainties, all of which are mechanisms that environmental activist groups use to block development.

“All of these mechanisms for delaying responsible development, especially litigation, are frequently exercised by environmental activist groups that place a higher value on animal rights than over human rights,” she said.

Sweeney said that a study commissioned by ASRC and the State of Alaska had concluded that the total cost of the critical habitat designation could reach billions of dollars.

“The department’s premise that there would not be a high cost of the critical habitat designation to Alaska Natives and the North Slope has now been proven flawed and borders on the absurd,” she said.

Native land

Another major bone of contention is the inclusion of Native lands within the designated habitat area.

“Critical habitat is designated for two of the 11 villages within the region, including Kotzebue, home to 3,400 people and zero polar bears,” said Rosie Umitchiaq Putruq Barr, resources manager for NANA. It doesn’t make sense to designate areas inhabited by humans as polar bear habitat, she said.

In a Jan. 18 interview Edward Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough, told Petroleum News that his main concern is possible impacts on the subsistence way of life of the northern Alaska communities. Uncertainty over fallout from the habitat designation is a significant cause of stress in communities already facing major challenges as a consequence of climate change and worries about offshore oil development, he said. Nearly 200,000 square miles of designation must have some community impact, he said.

It’s, at the very least, disconcerting to hear government officials say the designation won’t impact the North Slope way of life when no one bothered to come to the communities to talk to people about the designation proposals, Itta said.

“Sometimes it’s an affront, like a slap in the face,” he said, adding that he had not heard about the designation of the Beaufort Sea side of the North Slope as polar bear habitat until the morning that the designation was announced in the press.

Part of the solution

“We need to be consulted and be part of the solution, rather than decisions being made thousands of miles away,” Itta said. The North Slope communities are not responsible for climate change, are not responsible for what is happening to the sea ice and view the polar bear population as being in fine shape. Borough scientists question the population model that Fish and Wildlife has used to predict the potential demise of the polar bear, a model that has resulted in a major agency decision impacting the lives of North Slope residents, Itta said.

“This (designation) in conjunction with other cumulative impacts of government policy disruptions may force Alaska Natives to abandon our ancestral villages in search of new work to support our families,” Sweeney said.



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