Biden administration renews a permit that allows oil companies to accidentally disturb polar bears

The permit lasts five years.

By Yereth Rosen - August 9, 2021
A polar bear sow and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The oil industry will be able to continue working around polar bears on the North Slope for the next five years, thanks to a renewed authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service on Aug. 4 issued an updated Incidental Take Authorization that allows energy companies operating onshore and in the Beaufort Sea to disturb polar bears by non-lethal means. The authorization also covers disturbances to walruses, the other Arctic marine mammal species managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

An Incidental Take Authorization, which allows accidental disturbances and harassment of certain species, is not technically required for operating on the North Slope. However, any disturbances to polar bears of walruses that are committed without such an authorization would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The authorizations typically last for five years.

The service determined that non-lethal incidental and accidental “takes” of polar bears and walruses by oil-industry operators would not have any significant detrimental effect on the populations. For the most part, the concern is about polar bears, which are far more likely to have encounters with oil industry operations or aircraft overflights during the ice-free season that runs between mid-July and early November, according to the service’s analysis. The walrus population is largely found in the Chukchi, outside of the area of concern, but occasionally a few walruses swim over to the Beaufort, the analysis said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she welcomed the renewal.

“The new regulations allow for oil and gas development to continue on the North Slope for the foreseeable future,” the Republican senator said in a statement. “I will continue to work with Fish and Wildlife Service as they implement the new regulations.”

However, one environmental group criticized the renewal.

“It’s disturbing to see the Biden administration letting oil companies continue their assault on polar bears, walruses and our climate,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Arctic should be protected, not turned into a noisy, dirty oil field. President Biden promised bold climate action, but this is business as usual. Polar bears and walruses deserve better.”

The renewed authorization includes some minor changes and updates from the previous version. Among them is a stipulation that the oil industry may be required to participate in joint monitoring or research if there is uncertainty about impacts to polar bears, walruses or the subsistence harvests of either species. Another change clarifies that the geographic areas covered by the harassment authorization extends to 50 miles offshore, not 200 miles offshore. There is some updated information about polar bear research and requirements for avoiding disturbances to dens.

Another new feature is the addition of Qilak LNG to the list of companies covered by the authorization. Qilak is a new company and is seeking to build a North Slope natural gas project that would allow icebreaking tankers to load liquefied natural gas just off the North Slope coastline, thus avoiding the need to build a lengthy and expensive new pipeline across Alaska.

The renewed authorization does not extend to territory within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.