Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Alaska

Tongass in Alaska to get federal roadless protection

The federal rule protecting the nation's last remaining stretches of roadless wilderness will apply now to the largest and grandest of the national forests under a court ruling in Alaska, which threw out the exemption granted to the Tongass National Forest.

Ruling in Anchorage, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick invalidated an exemption crafted under the Bush administration that had been intended to boost the crippled timber industry in Southeast Alaska by allowing access to stands of timber in remote sections of the forest.

The Tongass, stretching over 17 million acres of emerald islands and azure waterways, has long been prized for its stunning stands of towering old-growth trees, which also are home to bears, wolves, salmon, bald eagles and other wildlife.

"The Tongass exemption reflected an outdated policy of building these extremely expensive roads into wilderness and remote areas of the Tongass just to log out the last valuable stands of old growth that still remained in the forest," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice, which helped argue the case.

Regulations protecting many of the nation's roadless areas, originally put forward under the administration of President Bill Clinton, have been batted back and forth in the courts for years. A special exemption was carved out for the Tongass National Forest, which had a management plan in place protecting much of its remaining old-growth trees and guaranteeing a supply of timber to the region's dying timber industry.

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Shell oil company nixes drilling in Alaskan Arctic for 2011

Shell announced on Thursday it would forgo exploratory drilling in the Alaskan Arctic for this year, the result of a ruling last month that revoked the oil giant’s federal clean-air permits that allowed drilling ships and support vessels to operate in the sensitive region.

The company had been putting pressure on the Department of Interior to allow drilling in Arctic waters at a time when federal regulators were reviewing all energy exploration in the wake of the BP blowout in the gulf of Mexico.

Attorneys representing Alaska Natives and conservation groups in January succeeded in challenging clean-air permits granted by the Environmental Protection Agency to Shell for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The federal Environmental Appeals Board ruled that EPA's analysis of the effect to Alaska native communities of nitrogen dioxide emissions from the drilling ships was too limited and ordered the agency to redo the work.

The Royal Dutch Shell company has tried for five years to begin work in the Alaskan Arctic, which poses both environmental and logistical challenges. Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby blamed the decision to halt the Beaufort exploratory drilling on "continuous regulatory delays."

Alaska’s congressional delegation expressed disappointment, saying the work would have created 800 jobs.
But environmental groups were ecstatic, saying more study needs to be done before allowing drilling in polar bear habitat. 

“The bottom line is that there is no known way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s conditions and too little is known about the Arctic’s marine environment,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the gulf spill, it’s that we can no longer rely on the oil industry’s shallow assurances. When it comes to the Arctic, there is too much at stake."

 -- Julie Cart

Polar bear makes marathon swim 426 miles across Arctic seas

A polar bear in Alaska swam nine days across the Beaufort Sea before finding a piece of ice to haul out on, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Wyoming have learned.

Her yearling cub didn't make it. What a scientist called the "ordeal" of Bear 20741 was documented in the journal Polar Biology, and while it may not have been unprecedented -- shrinking Arctic ice has led to frequent reports not only of long-distance swims, but even cannibalism -- the study provided some of the best documentation to date of the real-world conditions of a polar bear on a warming planet.

Researchers outfitted the bear with a GPS-equipped collar, and also a temperature sensor planted deep under her skin to track how her body adapted to swimming constantly in the frigid waters.

The bear lost more than 100 pounds during the swim, which began east of Barrow, Alaska and ended, after ranging more than 400 miles offshore, back at the Beaufort coast near the Canadian border.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Shrinking Arctic ice has led to frequent reports of not only long-distance swims by polar bears, but cannibalism as well. (This is not the polar bear that made the nine-day swim.) Credit: Arctic Bear Productions

RELATED: Polar bear's long swim illustrates ice melt

Initial proposal designating critical habitat for polar bears in the Arctic

Polar bears increasingly seen on land around Barrow, Alaska



The melting Arctic: a bigger-than-estimated impact on climate

Greenland ice AP
The dramatic shrinking of Arctic sea ice and the Northern Hemisphere's glaciers and snowfields has reduced the radiation of sunlight back into space more than scientists previously predicted, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience.

As a result, the ocean and land mass exposed by the melting ice and snow have absorbed more heat, contributing to global warming.

The "albedo" effect, in which the blinding white cover reflects sunshine, has been calculated in numerous computer-generated climate models. But the new study goes beyond those theoretical calculations. Using field measurements and satellite observations, a team led by University of Michigan researcher Mark Flanner found that the warming effect of the loss of snow and ice is "substantially larger" than was predicted in the estimates of 18 climate models.

On average, Earth's temperature has risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution, driven by the increase in heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases released by the burning of coal and oil. But the warming effect is uneven, with polar regions heating up much more than the lower latitudes.

Global warming skeptics have often claimed that climate models exaggerate ongoing climate change. But the new study of Arctic sea ice and snow on land documented the opposite: Climate models, in this important area, underestimate the effects. The findings add urgency to demands that the U.S., China and other major greenhouse gas polluters curb their emissions and switch to cleaner fuels.

Flanner and his colleagues measured ice and snow between 1979 and 2008. They found that ice and snow in the Northern Hemisphere are now reflecting on average 3.3 watts of solar energy per square meter back to space, a reduction of 0.45 watts per square meter over three decades.

In snow- and ice-covered regions, Flanner said, "observations show a stronger response to recent warming than anticipated." But he noted that the Arctic melting is just one of the major factors that will influence the future climate. "Changes in atmospheric water and clouds are the two other big players," he said.


The World in 2050: The Arctic and everything below

Obama faces a tricky decision on the polar bear

Global Warming: A rise in river flows

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Icebergs float in a bay off Ammassalik Island, Greenland. Summer sea ice in Arctic regions has shrunk dramatically over the past decade. Credit: John McConnico /Associated Press 

Three California ecosystems endangered, report finds


In a classic example of winning a sweepstakes you don’t want to be in, a report released Wednesday found that California has more endangered ecosystems than any other state, claiming three of the top 10 imperiled places.

The report, prepared by the Endangered Species Coalition, examined the effects of climate change on endangered species and came up with no surprises: Arctic Sea ice, shallow coral reefs and the Everglades.

California’s vulnerability was exposed in its deserts, the Sierra Nevada and the San Francisco Bay Delta.

The other ecosystems identified were the Hawaiian Islands, the Snake River Basin, the Greater Yellowstone region and the wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

The Mojave Desert is home to the pupfish and the Desert Tortoise, two species that are feeling the effects of higher temperatures and less precipitation. In the Sierra, earlier snow melt is devastating for amphibians. The report says that half the region’s 30 native species have declined. In the Delta -- where 12 of the region’s original 29 species are either extinct or endangered -- reduced water availability and fewer cold-water rivers are reducing the population of trout, salmon and smelt.

The report didn’t go much beyond identifying endangered places, but did call for reduction of greenhouse gas pollution, conservation of wild lands and strong enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

The report ends with a mention of seven ecosystems that didn’t make the top 10 but are deeply in danger. In another tip of the hat to California, the entire West Coast is on the critical list.


Petri dish for climate change

A tiny fish's upward move

California urges tunnel system for delta

Biologists scour Mojave for desert tortoise

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Rain falls over Lower Pine Lake in the Sierra Nevada. Credit: Ken Hively /Los Angeles Times

Obama decision on polar bear status closely watched

A long-simmering dispute about government protection of the polar bear has drawn in leading environmental law groups and the country’s most powerful business organizations.

Both sides are concerned about the effect that a decision on the bear's status might have on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

The Interior Department faces a legal deadline Thursday to explain why it has so far declined to upgrade the protected status of polar bears to "endangered" from its current status of "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Environmental groups normally friendly to the Obama administration have sued Interior to list the bear as endangered, saying the sea ice the bears need for hunting and breeding is being rapidly depleted by warming temperatures.

If the Obama administration listed the polar bear as endangered, it would have to move against factors that endanger it -- large emitters of greenhouse gases. That possibility worries industries dependent on fossil fuels, such as major manufacturers and utilities.

“There is a pronounced push-back from industry because they rightly see that they will have to modify or mitigate their activities to comply with the laws,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Land and Wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups suing to change the polar bear’s status to endangered.

So far, the administration has moved steadily to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But with a tough campaign ahead and a still-wobbly economy, the White House has been trying not to provoke policy battles with business, which could paint environmental regulation as a job killer.

Industry leaders said they would be watching the polar bear decision closely as a signal of the administration’s commitment to compromise with them.

A change from threatened to endangered status “would have profound consequences,” said Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor for the American Petroleum Institute, a lead litigant on the industry side. “It would very much get our attention.”

--Neela Banerjee, from Washington

Photo: A polar bear sow rests with her cubs on the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Arctic waters open for "cautious" leasing after 2012

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement about a "cautious" approach to offshore oil development opens the door to leasing new waters in the Arctic after 2012 and clears the way for full review of a proposed new exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea as early as next summer.

The proposal has been greeted with cheers by many in Alaska who've been waiting to move into the new offshore frontier of the Far North, but conservationists warned that more studies should have been done before including the Arctic in the administration's 2012-17 Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan.

“It is disturbing that Interior proposes to evaluate including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the 2012-2017 five-year plan, despite a severe lack of information and an inability to clean up oil spills in Arctic conditions,” a coalition of the nation’s biggest environmental organizations said in a statement.

“We will proceed with utmost caution,” Salazar said, adding that “cautious, limited exploratory activities” can help improve scientific understanding of the remote, little-known region. He said no new leases would be offered before 2013, and even then, they would proceed only after comprehensive studies of environmental impacts and oil spill cleanup capabilities.

In one of the most closely watched developments, Officials also said they were proceeding with a final environmental assessment for Shell Oil’s proposal to drill at least one exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea as early as next summer, which would be the first substantial new drilling in U.S. Arctic waters in many years.

That announcement was applauded by Shell, whose more ambitious program to drill several wells in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas has been held up in the courts by conservation and Native Alaska groups concerned that oil operations in one of the world’s most fragile environments could lead to disaster.

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Obama unveils scaled-back oil-drilling plan

Citing the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama administration reversed course Wednesday and pulled plans to open the eastern gulf and portions of the Atlantic coast to oil and gas exploration.

"We need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, adding that federal leasing efforts would focus on areas of the western and central gulf already open to drilling activity. "There's plenty of opportunity for oil and gas companies," he said.

Wednesday's announcement leaves open the potential for leasing in Arctic waters, but it specifies that no new leases will be granted there until substantial environmental and spill-response studies are conducted.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida called the decision "an enormous victory for the state," while the GOP lawmaker expected to be the next chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee condemned the administration's change of plans.

"We shouldn't allow this single event to disrupt our long-term need for an all-of-the-above energy plan that includes the responsible development of our nation's oil and gas resources," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

In what was seen as an attempt to garner Republican support for the president's energy and climate-change policies, the Obama administration in late March proposed moving toward drilling in the mid- and South Atlantic and the eastern gulf -- areas that had been off-limits to oil exploration for decades.

A few weeks later, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history began spewing millions of gallons of crude into the gulf and the shortcomings of the federal government's oversight of drilling operations were spotlighted.

-- Bettina Boxall and Richard Simon

Foes of GE salmon raise specter of 'Trojan gene' effect

The Food and Drug Administration's public comment period for labeling requirements for a genetically engineered salmon ended not so quietly, with a flurry of press releases leading up to Monday’s deadline.

They included an announcement by a group of lawmakers from Alaska and the Northwest that would prohibit FDA approval of a GE salmon, or require that it be labeled as genetically engineered in the event regulators approved the fish.

A key element of the last-minute volley was a letter from a dozen environmental, science and consumer groups to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg urging her to look carefully at possible adverse ecological consequences as it evaluates a Massachusetts firm’s application for a GE salmon for human consumption. If approved, the salmon would be the first GE food animal.

“We anticipate that a comprehensive [review] will show that the [GE] salmon pose a threat to wild salmon populations and the health of marine and freshwater ecosystems around the world,” the letter states.

The AquaBounty Technologies’ AquaAdvantage salmon reaches market weight in about half the time of a regular North Atlantic salmon.

The letter reminds the FDA of the need to consider a worst-case scenario: that the GE salmon, which is to be raised in closed, land-based facilities, will escape and inflict unknown consequences on the environment.

It leans heavily on perhaps the most hotly disputed evidence in the GE salmon debate, the so-called Trojan Gene effect, in which a specific genetic advantage -– in this case the AquaBounty salmon’s ability to grow faster -- enables it to outcompete unaltered salmon, leading to their demise.

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Obama administration moves to protect polar bear

The Obama administration is setting aside 187,000 square miles in Alaska as a "critical habitat" for polar bears, an action that could restrict future offshore drilling for oil and gas. The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, is about 13,000 square miles, or 8.3 million acres, less than in a preliminary plan released last year.

Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the Interior Department, said the designation would help polar bears stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change.

"This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations," Strickland said. "We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species."

Designation of crucial habitat does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear's habitat and interfere with its recovery.

Nearly 95% of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean where they hunt seals, breed and travel.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state's oil and gas industry had complained that the preliminary plan released last year was too large and dramatically underestimated the potential economic impact. The designation could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity and tax revenue, they said.

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