There’s still a lot scientists don’t know about how the Trump Administration’s plan to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska would impact its delicate ecosystems. That much is clear from newly-released documents the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wrote regarding the refuge, which one group alleges were kept from the public.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group for local, state, and tribal government officials, called out the Department of Interior Tuesday for allegedly hiding nearly 20 documents from over a year ago that outlined areas where scientific information about the impacts of drilling in ANWR is lacking. The organization received the documents from an anonymous source and independently verified them with other sources, PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse told Earther.
Dated February 25, 2018, a memo from FWS Alaska Regional Director Gregory Siekaniec lists 10 research subjects where the Interior Department needs more information before it should move forward with any extractive projects. This includes gathering details about the Porcupine caribou herd that calves in the ANWR’s 1.6 million-acre coastal plain where the drilling is planned. The questions that remain involve the herd’s migration routes and its exact calving areas. As the memo notes, answering these questions will cost time and money: an estimated $300,000 over five years.
“The lack of information about this area is jaw-dropping,” Whitehouse told Earther. “To do a proper environment impact assessment or statement, there’s a tremendous amount of information that still needs to be gathered. This is going to take time and resources.”
However, the Trump administration is moving forward swiftly with its plan to open up the refuge, which was made possible by a provision in a tax bill Congress passed in late 2017. The administration hopes to begin seismic testing in the refuge later this year to discover how much potential oil and gas lie in its coastal plain, where it has set its sights on drilling.
Impacts of the proposed drilling on caribou are of particular concern to the Gwich’in First Nation, whose members rely on the herd for food and culture. Members of the Gwich’in and other tribal nations have come out opposed to any extraction in the refuge and equate it to a human rights violation. Many environmentalists are also against the project due to the negative impacts it may have on local polar bears and other wildlife.
PEER is especially concerned that this memo never made it into the proposed project’s draft environmental impact statement, whose public comment period ends Wednesday. This memo and a number of other “expert assessments,” as PEER described them, were also not included or catalogued as withheld in Freedom of Information Act requests made by other organizations where they should’ve appeared, according to PEER.
“The greater indication is that [the Bureau of Land Management] is rushing the process and is not fully transparent in identifying information gaps,” Whitehouse said. “Our goal as an organization is to make sure that the expertise of the government public servants is understood, listened to, and acted upon.”
The Department of Interior denied allegations that it kept this information from the public in an email to Earther.
“Suppressed scientific concerns regarding Arctic Refuge is simply overstated,” wrote memo author Siekaniec, in the emailed statement.
Different Interior Department agencies, like the FWS and U.S. Geological Survey, are using these assessments to decide what studies to conduct, said Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash in the statement. As for the information requests, the department claims it’s still processing several requests. Balash called PEER’s allegations “untrue.”
What can’t be denied is that none of these assessments were included in the draft environmental impact statement, despite being more than a year old. The department didn’t answer Earther’s questions as to why that is the case or whether it would amend the EIS to include them.
The Alaska Wilderness League, which opposes drilling in the refuge, plans on submitting a 400-page public comment document, supported by 26 other organizations, that lists much of the same information the FWS scientists included in its analysis.
“What’s striking is how known it is this [significant lack of scientific information] exists and how aligned our assessment is with what Fish and Wildlife Service is saying,” Kristen Miller, conservation director with the Alaska Wilderness League, told Earther.
PEER has demanded in a letter that Department of Interior Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall launch an investigation into who might have ordered these documents be kept from the public. The group doesn’t know what to expect, but it will submit the documents in its own public comments regarding the project. That way, they can’t be ignored.
Update 3/13/19 1:03 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to clarify that the 400-page document the Alaska Wilderness League is submitting for public comment is supported by another 26 organizations.