No sign of emission reductions needed to avert climate change and protect Arctic seals, federal judge says

By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon - March 22, 2024
A ringed seal is shown in this undated photo. (Photo provided by NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory)
A ringed seal is shown in this undated photo. (Photo provided by NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory)

A former oil and gas attorney appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump said Wednesday that current trends show no signs that humans will be able to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid a major increase to global temperatures later this century.

Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Joshua Kindred reached that conclusion in an 18-page order denying a request by the state of Alaska and North Slope Borough to remove the Arctic ringed seal from the Endangered Species List.

Though the seal is common in waters near Arctic Alaska, its future survival is threatened by warming conditions caused by manmade climate change.

The state and borough sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2022 after the agency turned down their petition to remove the ringed seal from the list.

Federal protections for endangered species in the Arctic have curtailed oil and gas development in northern Alaska, and state officials have repeatedly sought to remove those protections in order to allow development that they say is important to the state’s economic health.

In their suit, state attorneys said that the federal agency improperly excluded an optimistic climate-change scenario known as RCP 2.6 when considering the delisting petition.

The plaintiffs also argued that a failed listing petition for Arctic walrus should have acted as a guide for delisting the seal, and that failures to properly analyze biological data resulted in a flawed decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Kindred concluded otherwise, rejecting all of the state’s arguments. On the climate change issue, he wrote, “Because current trends indicate there will be continued high GHG emissions and the (lawsuit) provided no evidence to support a dramatic, worldwide shift in emissions contemplated in RCP 2.6, it was reasonable for NMFS to remove RCP 2.6 from consideration.”

On the walrus issue, Kindred agreed with federal biologists’ assertion that ringed seals are more vulnerable to climate change than the walrus because young seals rely on snow insulation to keep from freezing. As the climate warms, that snow cover is expected to dwindle.

In a written statement, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said he was disappointed with Kindred’s decision.

“Although we haven’t decided on next steps as we continue to review the decision, we are shocked that the court appears to be applying a higher threshold for delisting of species than for listing species. There is no differentiation in the law, and the state continues to believe that NMFS should allow the process to play out and do a thorough evaluation of species that are shown to have healthy populations,” he said. “It also subverts the original purpose of the Endangered Species Act, which was to truly protect species that were on the brink of extinction—now it is being used as a weapon to stop development despite no significant evidence of decline in the population.”

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