Oil and Gas

Oil and gas development in the Western Arctic poses an immediate threat to wildlife and the continuity of this fragile ecosystem. Many oil and gas companies already hold leases in this critical wildlife areas, including within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Within the Colville River Special area itself, ConocoPhillips has pressed forward with the Colville Delta 5 project, which involved constructing a bridge and a pipeline across the mighty river. This project is already in production, but another one stemming off of it called Greater Mooses Tooth 1 will involve constructing a permanent road and pipeline through valuable wetland habitat.

Offshore drilling is also a very real threat to the northern Alaska coast as companies are eager to explore their offshore leases within 3 miles of the coast and further offshore over a hundred miles away. Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon are protected from drilling within the area boundaries, but they are not protected from pipeline construction to transport oil from offshore drilling directly across these valuable areas. The threat of a pipeline traversing hundreds of miles across the Western Arctic may be a not-so-distant concern.

Climate Change

With the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and the effects of climate change are felt every day in Alaska. The disappearance of sea ice is resulting in more coastal erosion, melting permafrost is draining lakes and wildlife habits, and migratory routes are changing faster than ever.

Polar bears and walrus depend on sea ice for hunting, and with sea ice quickly shrinking they face an uncertain future. Some predictions show summer sea ice completely disappearing by mid-century and polar bears going extinct in the wild by as soon as 2100.

Polar Bears are not the only animals facing hardships from climate change. In 2014, there were as many as 35,000 walrus in one haul-out within the Western Arctic. This overcrowding can be incredibly dangerous for the young pups, who may be crushed and killed in the overcrowded conditions. With mother walruses averaging only one pup every two years, these losses are devastating to the population. Walrus are also vulnerable and nearer to predators on land than when resting on sea ice.

Balanced Management

Management of the Western Arctic must strike a delicate balance between natural resource development and land conservation. Ensuring that industries use the best practices to keep the scars on the landscape to a minimum is essential. A smaller footprint can mean healthier ecosystems and less impacts for wildlife on the ground. So far, nearly 1.5 million acres have already been leased within the Western Arctic. Although development has been slow to start within the region due to its remoteness, oil companies are increasingly pressing oil exploration westward into the public lands of the Western Arctic.

In early 2015 ConocoPhillips’s first oil production project within our public lands was approved, Greater Moose’s Tooth-1. Unfortunately, this project will allow a sprawling footprint with an 8-mile road and pipeline to connect to a nearby project. With future projects, such as the GMT- 2 project waiting in the wings, GMT-1 sets a dangerous precedent for land use.

New wells are not the only problem, however. On the southeastern boarder of the Western Arctic there is an old naval base known as Umiat. This base has been classified as a superfund site, due to high levels of toxic wastes in the soil and piles of barrels and wreckage left behind by old exploration activities. Currently there is only air access to Umiat, and there has long been discussion of a 100-mile road and pipeline to connect future projects to the existing Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Umiat is not the only area of its kind. The U.S. Navy managed the Western Arctic in the 1940’s-50’s and again in the 1970’s-80’s. During these periods, 136 exploratory oil and gas wells were drilled throughout the area. Many of these wells have never been properly sealed and continue to leach contaminants into their surroundings. The Bureau of Land Management is working to remediate these wells, but with just over 20 wells sealed, the path to restoring the health of the land, waters, and wildlife is a slow one.

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