9th Circuit: ESA permits consideration of future climate change impacts in listing decisions

bearded Seal, Erignathus barbatus, , NOAA
Ice is vital to the survival of bearded seals in the Arctic. Image courtesy NOAA.

A federal appeals court ruled Oct. 24 that federal wildlife officials can consider future climate change impacts when deciding whether to grant Endangered Species Act protections.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Alaska Oil & Gas Association v. Pritzker came in a dispute over the Obama administration’s move to add a population of Pacific bearded seals in Alaska to the list of threatened and endangered species.

“This is a huge victory for bearded seals and shows the vital importance of the Endangered Species Act in protecting species threatened by climate change,” Kristen Monsell, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who argued the case, said in a statement.

The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus)  is a pinniped that is native to both the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. The Pacific bearded seal (E.b. nauticus), a subspecies, is found in marine environments around the Arctic region.

E.b. nauticus is not a deep water species. Instead, as explained by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, “[t]he distribution of bearded seals appears to be strongly associated with shallow water and high biomass of the benthic prey they feed on. They are limited to feeding depths of less than 150–200m.”

The Pacific bearded seal uses ice floes as a platform for mating, birthing, and nursing of their pups and the subspecies is an important food source for polar bears, killer whales, and Pacific walrus.

bearded-seal-range-map-courtesy-noaa
This map shows the range of the bearded seal. Graphic courtesy NOAA.

In 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity asked the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce that is responsible for marine mammal conservation, to list two distinct population segments of E.b. nauticus – one native to the Sea of Okhotsk, another native to the Bering and Chukchi Seas – and two other seal species native to Alaskan waters as threatened under the ESA.

NOAA finalized the listing in December 2012, explaining its decision as a necessary response to ongoing human alteration of the planet’s climate:

“The main concern about the conservation status of bearded seals stems from the likelihood that their sea ice habitat has been modified by the warming climate and, more so, that the scientific consensus projections are for continued and perhaps accelerated warming in the foreseeable future. A second concern, related by the common driver of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, is the modification of habitat by ocean acidification, which may alter prey populations and other important aspects of the marine ecosystem.”

Before finalizing the listings, NOAA commissioned a report to examine the conservation status of Pacific bearded seals. Published in 2010, that report used data from the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to conclude that E.b. nauticus would experience enough loss of its favored shallow water ice floe habitat during the species’ mating, birthing, and nursing seasons to be at risk of extinction by the latter part of this century.

The state of Alaska, an oil and gas industry association, and a native Alaskan government sued the Obama administration in federal court in Anchorage in an effort to overturn the listing of both E.b. nauticus populations. Their challenge to the Okhotsk DPS failed because U.S. district judge Ralph R. Beistline held that the plaintiffs lacked standing. That ruling was not challenged on appeal.

As for the Beringia DPS, the plaintiffs main line of legal attack was that the listing was not based on the “best scientific and commercial data available,” as required by 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(1)(A). They supported that claim with assertions that there is, at present, a fairly high number of individuals in that population, the size of the population at which extinction would become a realistic threat is not known, that use of climate models to project sea ice conditions past 2050 is not permitted by the ESA, and that NOAA had not shown a connection between seasonal sea ice loss and the continuing viability of the Beringia DPS of E.b. nauticus. The industry-led coalition also pointed to NOAA’s refusal to consider sea ice losses in listing decisions involving other species.

The federal appeals court panel, in an opinion written by Judge Richard A. Paez, had little difficulty in rejecting the arguments. Paez pointed out that the Ninth Circuit has held, in a Feb. 2016 opinion rejecting another ESA challenge brought by AOGA, that IPCC climate models do represent “best available science” and that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has also rejected arguments that IPCC models cannot be used in connection with ESA listing decisions.

The panel emphatically rejected the argument that a lack of certainty inherent in the climate models NOAA used renders them useless as a foundation for a listing decision:

“The fact that climate projections for 2050 through 2100 may be volatile does not
deprive those projections of value in the rulemaking process. The ESA does not
require [the agency] to make listing decisions only if underlying research is ironclad and absolute.”
Monsell pointed out that the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision solidifies the role of climate science in making decisions about implementing the ESA, at least in cases of organisms dependent on frozen Arctic habitats.

“The court firmly affirmed the notion that there’s no debate that temperatures will continue to increase over the remainder of the century and that the effects will be particularly acute in the Arctic,” she said. “It affirmed the notion that the scientific consensus accepted by an overwhelming majority of climate scientists, is that Arctic sea ice will continue to recede through 2100.”

Spokespersons for both AOGA and the state of Alaska told Alaska Dispatch News on Oct. 24 that those entities will consider whether to seek en banc review of the panel decision in Alaska Oil & Gas Association v. Pritzker or whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Monsell said that she does not think such further review is likely.

“En banc petitions are rarely granted and cert petitions are granted even less frequently,” she explained. “We think the Ninth Circuit opinion is well-reasoned, the right one under the law, and will be upheld and that it’s unlikely to even be reconsidered.”

One of the first disputes that may be affected by the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the bearded seal case is a challenge to the listing of the Arctic subspecies of ringed seal (Phoca hispida hispida) as a threatened species. CBD included P.h. hispida in the same petition that asked for the listing of E.b. nauticus.

NOAA listed P.h. hispida as threatened in December 2012 and, as they did in response to the designation of the Pacific bearded seal as threatened, the oil industry and several native Alaskan organizations challenged that action in federal court.

In March 2016 U.S. district judge Ralph R. Beistline ruled, as he had in the challenge to the bearded seal listing, that NOAA’s use of climate science models to project habitat loss later in the 21st century is inconsistent with the ESA’s mandate to use only the “best available scientific and commercial data available” when making listing decisions.

Monsell said that she is optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will reverse Beistline’s decision in the Arctic ringed seal case, too.

“There’s a stronger case for listing the ringed seal in some ways because of the unique habitat needs,” she explained. “Ringed seals, unlike other seal species, dig snow caves and they need not only a certain amount of ice, but also a certain amount of snow on top of the ice to build them.”

The legal limbo to which NOAA’s sister wildlife agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, consigned Pacific walrus (Obodenus rosmaurs divergens) in 2011 may also be affected. USFWS specified that O.r. divergens is a candidate for ESA listing on grounds that it lacks the resources to do the work needed to add the animal to the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

A July 2011 litigation settlement agreement between USFWS and CBD requires USFWS to make a decision about listing the Pacific walrus before the end of August 2017.

Not all organisms affected by ongoing human alteration of the atmosphere are found in the Arctic. USFWS is likely to face decisions about whether to list other species that are likely to lose habitat, and which may already be experiencing habitat loss, as climate change proceeds.

Monsell pointed to the American pika (Ochotona princeps), a subspecies of moose (Alces alces andersoni) that is native to the upper Midwest, and the wolverine (Gulo gulo) as examples of American wildlife species that may now be more likely to be added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species as a result of the decision.

USFWS has twice rejected petitions to add the American pika to the list of threatened or endangered species, most recently last month. But new research indicates that O. princeps will suffer as rising temperatures affect their high elevation habitat. A paper published earlier this year concluded that the tiny relative of the rabbit is likely to be extirpated in at least some of its refuges scattered around mountainous areas of the West.

“The consensus of all the projections is decline,” Dr. Chris Ray, a biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research who has extensively studied the species, said. “I would hazard an estimate that most projections under moderate climate scenarios project maybe a loss of at least 50 percent of the suitable habitat during this century.”

Unfortunately, the plight of the pika also indicates that currently available climate models may not help scientists assess conservation prospects for every species.

Ray explained that biologists do not yet understand enough about the impacts of a warming atmosphere on the sub-surface habitat pikas depend upon to escape daytime heat.

“We don’t necessarily have enough information about the process by which pikas are affected by climate or other stressors,” she said. “We don’t understand the process well enough to model them in great detail.”

american-pika-courtesy-wikimedia
The American pika is native to the mountains of the west and is usually found in boulder fields above treeline. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

That uncertainty has also been a barrier to securing ESA protection for  the wolverine.

Opponents of a listing argued that models of future snow cover, an indication of habitat quality for the species, are too unreliable.

USFWS ultimately backed away from an earlier proposal to designate G. gulo as threatened because, among other reasons, the agency did “not have sufficient information to understand the specific response of wolverines to future effects of changes in climate.”

A U.S. district judge in Montana rejected that rationale in April 2016. In his decision, Judge Dana Christensen ordered USFWS to reconsider its decision to deny the wolverine ESA protection. He emphasized that federal wildlife agencies are to take a proactive approach to species conservation under the ESA:

“It is the undersigned’s view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation.”

As for the moose of the upper Midwest, USFWS decided in June that the population of the animal in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin is a candidate for addition to the list of threatened and endangered species.

 

EPA effort to block Pebble Mine in Alaska hits judicial bump

A federal judge in Alaska has temporarily barred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from exercising a veto of a permit needed to build the largest open pit mine ever proposed in North America.

The decision by U.S. district judge Russel Holland came in a lawsuit that alleges EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by working with opponents of the copper mine project.

Holland did not release a written opinion. He instead issued a verbal temporary restraining order from the bench.

The lawsuit is part of an effort by Pebble Limited Partnership, the developer of the mine, to bypass EPA’s opposition to its project, which would take up more land in the rugged and fecund Bristol Bay region than the entirety of Manhattan and obliterate the world-class salmon fishery there.

EPA had announced last summer that it would use its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to reject a permit that would allow PLP to deposit fill into the bay. The agency plans to finalize that decision early in 2015.

Wednesday’s order by Judge Holland does not indicate that the court agrees with the merits of PLP’s allegations against EPA.

Obama administration releases revised draft environmental study on Arctic drilling

The federal agency that oversees hydrocarbon exploration in waters off America’s coasts released Friday a new study of the impacts of drilling in the Chukchi sea.

Coming about ten months after a federal appeals court rejected a prior effort by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the draft supplemental environmental impact statement concludes that there is a high likelihood of a large oil spill in the fragile Arctic region if development of exploration leases proceeds.

Environmental advocacy group leaders used the occasion to sharply criticize the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to consider allowing Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies to hunt for fossil fuels in the far north.

“Companies are not prepared to operate in unforgiving Arctic waters,” Susan Murray, a senior vice president at Oceana, said in a statement. “There is no proven way to respond to an oil spill in icy conditions and almost no infrastructure from which to launch a response to any kind of accident.”

One significant worry for the environmental community is the impact drilling would have on the region’s wildlife. The Chukchi sea provides habitat for several imperiled species, including the polar bear, walrus, and bowhead whales.

“Whether it will be from an almost inevitable oil spill, or from the unavoidable noises from seismic surveys, vessel and platform stabilization, underwater acoustic communications, seafloor hydrocarbon processing, and re-injection well compressors; we know that oil and gas operations will disrupt the habitat for Arctic marine life which we know so little about – and upon which we may very well depend,” Michael Stocker, Ocean Conservation Research’s director, said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled in January that a prior environmental impact statement failed to consider all of the possible impacts of drilling in the region.The prior EIS assumed that only about 1 billion barrels of oil would be extracted from beneath the roiling waves in the Chukchi; the new draft EIS considers that production will total about 4.3 billion barrels.

Shell experienced numerous difficulties in a 2012 attempt to prepare for exploration activities, including the grounding of a drilling vessel.

The new EIS will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 7. A 45-day comment period will occur before BOEM can make a final decision about whether to permit exploration activity to commence in 2015.

The $2.7 billion lease at issue was finalized in Feb. 2008.

Shell again asks Interior to allow Arctic oil drilling

Bowhead whales inhabit the shallow Chukchi Sea. An endangered species, Balaena mysticetus can grow to 40 feet in length and weigh up to 100 tons. Walruses, ringed seals, a variety of whale species, and polar bears also inhabit the Chukchi Sea, as do millions of sea birds of many species. Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Dave Rugh.
Bowhead whales inhabit the shallow Chukchi Sea. An endangered species, Balaena mysticetus can grow to 40 feet in length and weigh up to 100 tons. Walruses, ringed seals, a variety of whale species, and polar bears also inhabit the Chukchi Sea, as do millions of sea birds of many species. Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Dave Rugh.

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC has decided to again seek U.S. government permission to drill for oil in the Arctic.

The company filed an exploration plan with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Thursday, according to a report in Financial Times.

An earlier effort to obtain approval for drilling in the fragile Chukchi Sea was blocked by the federal appeals court in San Francisco, which ruled that BOEM’s environmental impact statement on $2 billion worth of leases sold to Shell did not comply with federal law. The decision in Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell pushed Shell’s nearly decade long effort to extract hydrocarbons from some of the most environmentally sensitive marine areas on Earth back to the drawing boards.

Shell has also experienced a series of machinery disasters in the Arctic, including the grounding of a vessel off the coast of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska in 2012. A Coast Guard report on that incident released last April concluded that “inadequate assessment and management of risks” was a principal cause of it.

Within U.S. terrritorial waters, the federal government owns the sea and seabed beyond 5.6 kilometers past the shoreline. Two statutes that date back to the 1950s – the Submerged Lands Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act – together authorize the secretary of the interior to lease submerged oil and gas deposits. However, that authority is subject to a variety of constraints imposed by broadly applicable environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires federal agencies to study the environmental impact of “major federal actions” before moving forward with them.

The drilling rig Kulluk ran aground near Alaska on Dec. 31, 2012. This image shows the distressed vessel on Jan. 1, 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia.
The drilling rig Kulluk ran aground near Alaska on Dec. 31, 2012. This image shows the distressed vessel on Jan. 1, 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

 

Federal appeals court rejects U.S. plan for oil drilling in Chukchi Sea

The Obama administration’s plan to extract billions of barrels of oil from Arctic seas off the northwest coast of Alaska hit a roadblock in federal court last week.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Jan. 22 that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement’s ‘s environmental impact study was flawed because it assumed a production level far lower than the potential oil production from the project.

The case centers on a lease sale advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush. Called Lease Sale 193, the 2008 decision affects about 30 million acres of the marine region, an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The sale of 487 exploration leases in Lease Sale 193 produced more than $2.6 billion in revenue for Washington, with about $2.1 billion of that coming from Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Opponents of the BOEM plan to allow drilling in the area point to the risks it poses to the region’s diverse wildlife.

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships,” Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director, said in a statement. “It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds.”

The opponents, who include 12 conservation groups, one native Alaskan advocacy organization, and one native Alaskan village, argued that, by underestimating the amount of oil that could be extracted from the area if drilling occurred, BOEM was risking a huge oil spill that would devastate that pristine area.

“This mistake means that the EIS gives only the best case scenario for environmental harm,” Eric Grafe, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, said. “All is based on the number of barrels produced. If they get the number wrong, they understate all those other impacts.”

Grafe said that, even if only 1 billion barrels of oil were produced in the area that is subject to the oil lease sale, there would be a 40 percent chance of an oil spill.

“Because it’s so remote and so inaccessible, the assumption is that you’d have to find a significant amount of oil to justify the infrastructure that would have to be put in,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing. No roads, no pipelines. It’s a pristine area. It’s precisely because of that absence of infrastructure that it’s so risky to drill there. If there is an oil spill, you’re not going to have the resources to respond to that oil spill and you can’t clean it up in an icy environment anyway.”

The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed that the government’s reliance upon an estimate of 1 billion barrels of oil caused its study of environmental impacts from the drilling activity  to be flawed.

“In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced,” Judge William Fletcher, the lead author of the appellate panel’s opinion, wrote.

There may be as many as 15 billion barrels of oil that are economically viable to extract beneath the Chukchi Sea, according to 1 2011 BOEM analysis.

Environmentalists also point to the contribution to ongoing climate change that extracted oil would make.

“We can’t afford to burn the oil found there,” Grafe said. “We shouldn’t be getting more oil out to burn it if we are going to stay within climate change parameters.”

Shell commenced drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but experienced numerous problems. A  March 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Shell committed a series of logistical and planning blunders in connection with its Lease Sale 193-related activities in the Arctic.

“They screwed it up really badly,” Grafe said. “Here’s a company saying ‘we’re ready to drill, we can do it safely’ and it’s a giant fiasco. Nothing goes right.”

Among those problems:

* a containment dome used to prevent the spread of oil spills that was being tested in Puget Sound was “crushed like a beer can,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior official who observed the test;

* a drill ship called the Noble Discoverer slipped anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, AK, then had to quickly be moved from Shell’s exploration site in the Chukchi Sea because an ice storm was rapidly approaching;

* U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found a litany of maritime regulation violations on the vessel and later referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice;

* the Noble Discoverer later caught fire and exploded while in port in the Aleutian Islands; and

* another drilling ship, the Kulluck, broke free of a tow and ran aground in Kodiak, AK in Dec. 2012. Shell was trying to move the ship to Seattle to avoid paying Alaska property taxes on vessels used for oil and gas exploration.

“Doing that in the winter when there’s lots of storms in the Gulf of Alaska is risky,” Grafe said. “But they did it.”

The incident involving the Kulluck drill barge remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 the U.S. Department of Interior has authority over oil and gas exploration and extraction on submerged lands along the country’s coasts. That cabinet department, in turn, includes a specialized agency – BOEM – to handle leasing of the submerged lands for oil and gas development activity. BOEM used to be known as the Minerals Management Service. The Obama administration changed its name in 2010, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale dispute will now go back before a U.S. district judge in Alaska. He will decide whether the holders of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea can proceed to drill after a modified environmental impact statement is prepared or whether the lease sales should be voided altogether.

Judge Ralph Beistline had previously rejected BOEM’s environmental impact statement in a 2010 decision. Later, after the Obama administration made changes to the EIS and proceeded with Lease Sale 193, Beistline upheld that decision. It was that 2011 order that was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last week.

Grafe said that the appeals court’s opinion gives BOEM time to decide whether to abandon the Chukchi Sea leases.

“They could put out a draft EIS and, while they’re doing that process to get a more accurate assessment, not allow any activities to happen on those leases,” he explained. “At the end of that EIS process, when we have a document that more accurately informs the public about the risks, they can reconsider the decision about whether the leases should be there.”

Grafe was referring to an environmental impact statement, which is the study of the environmental impacts likely to result from a “major federal action,” such as marine oil leases, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Shell announced this week that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas this year.

The case is Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell, No. 12-35287.

Chukchi Sea ice - photo courtesy NOAA - photo by Karen E. Frey Beluga whale pod in Chukchi sea - photo courtesy NOAA, photo by Laura Morse Walruses in the Chukchi Sea - photo courtesy USGS

Kulluck aground - photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Top photo: Ice on Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Karen E. Frey)

Second photo: Beluga whale pod in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Laura Morse)

Third photo: Walrus in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Fourth photo: The drill ship Kulluck aground in Kodiak, AK, Jan. 1, 2013 (photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)