Arctic Refuge drilling plans cause concern in Canada

In late December, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a draft environmental impact statement, analyzing the administration’s plan to open parts of the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy development. Under the plan, oil drilling would occur along the 1.5 million acre coastal plain.

The refuge’s coastal plain is home to an impressive array of wildlife, including polar bears (Ursusmaritimus), numerous bird species and caribou (Rangifertarandus). This area, along with Ivvavik National Park across the border in Canada, is the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, the largest herd in the refuge apolicy, drilling, energy development, ANWR, Alaska nd one of the largest in North America. The decision to open this area for energy development has been contentious for decades.

Now, the Canadian government, two territories and several First Nations are weighing in with their concerns about the United States drilling in such an ecologically and culturally important area.

“Canada is concerned about the potential transboundary impacts of oil and gas exploration and development planned for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain,” says a letter from Environment Canada to the Alaska office of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages oil drilling in the refuge, according to media reports. Yukon and the Northwest Territories apparently have similar concerns, as do several First Nations.

The draft plan itself acknowledges the potential impacts to Canada, and its First Nations people in particular. The plan notes that First Nations people take about 85 percent of the annual caribou harvest in that area and indicates that “potential impacts, particularly those relating to changes in calving distribution and calf survival, are expected to be more intense for the [Porcupine herd] because of their lack of previous exposure to oil field development. These Canadian communities would be among the most likely to experience potential indirect impacts.”

The transboundary nature of caribou management and conservation has long been recognized by the U.S. and Canada. In the 1987 treaty on conserving the Porcupine caribou herd, both countries agreed to conserve the herd and the landscape it occupies “through international co-operation and co-ordination so that the risk of irreversible damage or long-term adverse effects as a result of use of caribou or their habitat is minimized.”

The Interior Department is accepting comments on the plan until Feb. 11, ignoring requests to extend the comment deadline in light of the government shutdown, which has at times restricted public access to documents and caused some public meetings to be postponed.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Energy Development and Wildlife.

Header Image: Porcupine caribou cross a river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ©Gary Braasch