A new study warns that polar bears are starving as a result of fossil-fuel-driven climate change and could face extinction faster than previously thought. Meanwhile, Earthjustice and other groups warn that a proposed National Petroleum Reserve lease sale failed to consider how burning the fossil fuels might impact climate change. There is also concern that the areas made available for leasing included the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which is among the largest and most ecologically significant wetlands in the world.
Starving polar bear video exposes climate change impact
Trump's Arctic Oil, Gas Lease Sale
Violated Environmental Rules, Lawsuits Claim Sabrina Shankman / InsideClimate News
(February 3, 2018) -- An expanding legal campaign to force federal agencies to take climate change into account when making big energy decisions has a new frontier: Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.
Environmentalists on Friday challenged a record-breaking oil and gas lease sale there by the Trump administration, which offered up 10 million acres for drilling in December.
In a pair of lawsuits, environmental groups argued that the lease sale broke a key law by ignoring climate and other environmental impacts.
In one of the suits, the environmental law organization Earthjustice and the plaintiffs it represents argued that the Trump administration had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider how the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fossil fuels from the Arctic tracts might impact climate change.
"NEPA requires agencies to take a hard look at the effects of their actions," said Rebecca Noblin, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. "There have been a lot of courts lately that have said that if this is a fossil fuel project, that includes the effects of burning fossil fuels. The agency just hasn't done that here."
Earthjustice's lawsuit is just the latest to make that case.
"Over the years, there have been many court decisions saying that greenhouse gas emissions should be considered in Environmental Impact Statements," said Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "The pace of those decisions has really been picking up lately."
The most recent cases come as the Trump administration attempts to weaken requirements related to considering climate change in energy project decisions. Guidance issued under President Obama in 2015 directed agencies to factor in greenhouse gas emissions and climate change during NEPA reviews. President Trump's Council on Environmental Quality officially withdrew that policy last spring.
"We're going to see more and more of these cases as the Department of Interior systematically tries to dismantle protection of public lands," Gerrard said. "The judicial branch is moving in a different direction than the executive because the statute itself calls for examination of all significant environmental impacts and climate change is certainly one of them."
Bloomberg News (May 3, 2017)
Courts Have Sided with Similar Arguments
There's a more than decade-long precedent of courts ruling in favor of this argument: * In 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that greenhouse gas emissions must be taken into account when issuing new automobile fuel efficiency standards.
* More recently, in August 2017, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission violated NEPA when it failed to take into account greenhouse gas emissions related to a pipeline project.
* A month later, the conservative-leaning Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the same way in a case about coal leasing.
In addition to its claims about failure to take emissions into account, the Earthjustice lawsuit argues that the Interior Department failed to develop and compare alternative sites for the leases. It argues that the Obama Administration had the same failure when it opened up 1.4 million acres of the reserve for leasing in 2016.
The plaintiffs in the Earthjustice lawsuit are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Concerns About Alaska Fish and Wildlife
A second lawsuit filed Friday says the administration failed to conduct a site-specific review of how development of the proposed leases would impact the environment.
Before a leasing sale can be held, the Bureau of Land Management is required to complete an environmental impact review. For the 2017 National Petroleum Reserve sale, the bureau relied on what's called a programmatic review—a sort of bird's-eye view of an entire region, as opposed a more specific examination on the ground.
"We want to make sure that the agencies looking after our public lands take the required steps to protect fish, wildlife, subsistence activities and habitat," said Brook Brisson, at attorney with the Trustees for Alaska. "BLM can't rely on programmatic impact statements when the agency is authorizing site-specific activities, especially if the agency isn't able to say no down the line when projects are moving forward."
Trustees for Alaska is representing the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society in the lawsuit.
The environmental groups are particularly concerned about the National Petroleum Reserve lease sale because the areas made available for leasing included the sensitive wildlife habitat around the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which is among the largest and most ecologically significant wetlands in the world. The 22 mile-wide lake sits near the coast, and is home to the Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd and a variety of other Arctic wildlife.
The question of whether a programmatic review is sufficient or if a site-specific review is needed "is not one size fits all," Gerrard said. "If there's something site specific that's not covered in the programmatic review, usually a new document is needed."
The December lease sale, though unprecedented in scale, was far from a success. Of the 10 million acres offered for oil and gas development, just 80,000 acres were leased, raising questions about the economic viability of Arctic drilling at the same time the Trump administration is pushing to open up more of Alaska, including parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and federal offshore waters, to oil and gas development.
(February 3, 2018) -- Polar bears are starving and could face extinction faster than previously thought, according to a new study.
Published Thursday in the journal Science, the study was conducted by researchers who fixed collars on nine bears and recorded their activity levels for up to 11 days. They found that the Arctic creatures were suffering an extreme shortage of food.
As a result of climate change, the sea ice in the Arctic is melting and forcing the bears to travel further and use more energy to catch their prey.
The three-year study conducted by the US Geological Survey and University of California, Santa Cruz, found that the Arctic predators are moving 1.6 times more than previous studies have reported. That increased movement in the search for food leaves them shorter on the calories they need.
"The purpose was to get a better understanding of what the changes in sea levels are and how they are impacting the polar bears," Anthony Pagano, a lead researcher in the study, told CNN.
"We wanted to understand what the basic mechanisms were, what the polar bears were doing on the ice and what their energy needs are."
The study found that for one polar bear to sustain its energy level it would require an intake of 12,325 calories a day, usually one adult ringed seal every 10 days.
Over the course of the study, four of the nine seals did not reach that calorie level and lost a combined mass of 20 kilograms (44 pounds), which "reinforced the famine lifestyle the polar bears have," Pagano said.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears spend more than 50% of their time hunting and are successful less than 2% of that time.
"I'm not surprised to have seen this," said Liz Greengrass, a director at UK animal conservation charity Born Free Foundation. "Polar bears are reliant on seals for food and seals rely on sea ice. Global warming is melting the ice so it has a chain reaction on how polar bears can survive."
Polar bears have been listed as endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the protection program repeatedly emphasizes the importance of climate change.
"Without decisive action to address Arctic warming, the long-term fate of this species is uncertain," Greg Siekaniec, Alaska regional director of the wildlife agency, told CNN last year.
Arctic sea ice in December was at its second-lowest level since 1979, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
USGS researchers' most recent estimate of the polar bear population indicates their numbers have declined by 40% over the past decade, but a common problem for researchers is that it has been difficult to study polar bear behavior in these harsh environments, Pagano said in a statement.
"We now have the technology to learn how they are moving on the ice, their activity patterns and their energy needs, so we can better understand the implications of these changes we are seeing in the sea ice," he said.
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