The Obama administration has proposed the largest critical habitat designation ever, setting aside 226 million acres of ocean off Alaska’s coastline to protect the Arctic ringed seal.
Arctic ringed seals were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2012 after environmental activists petitioned the Obama administration to list them. This now gives the federal government the justification needed to set aside 350,000 square miles — an area twice the size of California.
Critics of the habitat designation say it could stymie oil and gas development in the Arctic region. Alaska’s outer continental shelf is considered to be one of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves boasting as much as 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to Alaska’s Resource Development Council.
In its proposal, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oil and gas production are likely to occur in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s coast, especially as demand for petroleum rises. NOAA argues that this puts seals at risk of being harmed by oil spills.
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“NOAA’s justification admits several non-scientific reasons motivated its decision, such as ‘enhanced public awareness’ and that the proposed designation ‘may help focus and contribute to conservation efforts,’” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office told KTUU News in a statement.
Designating 350,000 square miles of Alaskan waters as a critical habitat would mean that any oil and gas activity taking place in the region would have to be evaluated based on how much it would impact ringed seals. But NOAA says that oil and gas activities have occurred in areas with protected species in the past.
“The proposed critical habitat area overlaps with some areas where offshore oil and gas activities are known to occur,” a NOAA spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “If a federal action may affect ringed seals or their designated critical habitat, the action agency must enter into consultation with NOAA Fisheries.”
“Oil and gas activities have been conducted in areas where other listed species occur,” the spokeswoman said, adding that drilling has occurred in areas with bowhead whales, humpback whales and polar bears.
Environmentalists cheered the proposed designation, but added that these protections only matter if carbon dioxide emissions are reduced in order to fight global warming. Scientists and environmentalists say that global warming is reducing Arctic ice coverage and hurting species that rely on it for survival.
“We’re thrilled that the ringed seals are getting the habitat protections they so desperately need as their sea-ice home melts beneath them,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Now the Obama administration needs to make these protections count, by reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that’s rapidly making the Arctic uninhabitable for ringed seals and other ice-dependent animals,” Wolf said.
The seal habitat designation comes amid news that the National Defense Authorization Act includes the largest expansion of federal lands since 2009, which has angered conservative groups.
The federal lands expansion slipped into the NDAA would add 250,000 acres of new wilderness in western states and put thousands more acres off limits to drilling and mining in states, reports E&E Publishing.
“Republicans in Congress are pointing out that not everything in the federal lands package is bad,” Myron Ebell, director of the Director, Center for Energy and Environment at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF.
“But the bad far outweighs the good in this over-400-page monstrosity,” Ebell said. “By my count there are 245,000 acres of new Wilderness Areas in five States plus another 289,000 acres withdrawn from natural resource production. Many of these federal land lockups could never be enacted on their own if debated and voted in the light of day.”
The NDAA bill, however, did get some support from Republicans who got some goodies like expedited oil and gas permitting on federal lands, copper mining in Arizona and a conveyance of federal timberlands in Alaska to native tribes.
Sen. Murkowski was one of the key Republicans supporting the natural resource provisions in the NDAA, despite the thousands of acres it puts off limits to drilling and mining.
“I am pleased that after weeks of negotiations, we have reached a bipartisan and bicameral agreement to advance this series of public lands bills,” Murkowski said in a statement. “We have worked hard to develop a balanced package that will increase resource production and provide new economic opportunities for western communities.”
“This is what happens when secret deals are made in backrooms during lame-duck sessions,” Ebell said. “Members of Congress should be ashamed.”
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