The Bureau of Land Management’s rush to approve Arctic drilling leases through a draft environmental impact statement that lacks sufficient analysis will harm polar bears, water resources, caribou and other wildlife, Friends of Animal’s Wildlife Law Program said in comments submitted to the federal agency this week.

“The rushed process the agency is pursuing is incompatible with protecting the fragile environment of the Coastal Plain,’’ WLP director Mike Harris said in the comments. “We are confident that a thorough and robust review of the impacts of oil and gas activities would demonstrate that an oil and gas program is simply incompatible and inconsistent with protecting wildlife. We cannot allow this process to continue and risk all the Refuge has to offer.” 

The Refuge consists of more than 19 million acres of wild lands and was first set aside for protection in 1960. But in a move to obtain support for the Republican tax measure from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal to include a provision that opens its 1.6 million- acre coastal plain region that is home to polar bears, caribou, grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, muskoxen and more than 130 species of migratory birds to oil and gas exploration.

Seismic exploration and drilling would require a small army of industrial vehicles and equipment to crisscross every square inch of the Refuge’s biological heart, including the critical habitat of the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear in the middle of polar bear denning season. The coastal plain is one of the most important onshore denning areas for polar bears in the U.S., more so now than ever as sea ice continues to recede. The seismic testing could frighten mother bears from their dens, leaving cubs to perish and contribute to further species decline as well as leaving lasting scars on the fragile tundra and its vegetation.

”Of significant concern is the failure of BLM to adequately address the impacts of climate change, and how this proposal will exasperate the problem. We know that the impacts of climate change are felt more acutely than the Arctic, which is warming at more than double the rate of the rest of the country,” Harris said. “While acknowledge the importance of the Coastal Plain to wildlife, like polar bears and marine animals, the draft decision making documents provide little analysis on the extent of impacts oil and gas activities would have on the animals who depend on the Refuge.”

In addition to submitting comments regarding drilling in the Arctic, FoA is supporting the Arctic Cultural Coastal Plain Protection Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California. The act, HR 5911, would repeal the drilling provision in the tax law. Companion legislation has also been introduced in the Senate by Democratic Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

“The issue of commercially assaulting the wildest place left in America is anathema to anyone with an ounce of respect for unspoiled wilderness,’’ said Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral. “Informed people recognize that the 19.6 million-acre Arctic Refuge is a national treasure and its abundant wildlife is worth protecting from oil and gas companies for oil we don’t need. “