Environment Minister Pauline Frost at a press conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 20. Frost has said that her department is working to submit a response to a draft plan which proposes leasing portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

‘Very strong response’ to be submitted in light of draft plan on ANWR drilling: Minister Frost

A scientific report that will inform that response is to be released before Feb. 11

Environment Minister Pauline Frost says her department is working to submit a “very strong response” to the draft plan that proposes leasing portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development, a move that could jeopardize crucial habitat of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Asked how the response would be worded, Frost declined to comment, stating that work between partners continues.

“We have to define what protecting the habitat means,” Frost said in an interview Jan. 3, “because, really, that’s the big question that’s left for us to ponder.”

Informing the response to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a scientific report by Environment Yukon that’s slated to be released ahead of Feb. 11, the final day of a public feedback period for the draft environmental impact statement (EIS).

“It’s a scientific summary of the best available information on the herd, with respect to the proposed development,” said Mike Suitor, a northern Yukon biologist with the department.

The data scientists are working with includes numbers like survival and pregnancy rates, effects of displacement and what that could mean for calves, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is understand what are the actual impacts on the herd going to be from the proposed alternatives in the impact statement,” Suitor said.

In December 2017, ANWR’s coastal plain was opened up to the possibility of oil and gas leases when the Trump administration inserted a provision in to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The refuge, located in northern Alaska, encompasses roughly 19 million acres; the leasing program area is roughly 1.5 million acres, comprised of federal lands and waters. About 7.7 billion barrels of oil are expected to be beneath the program area, the draft plan says.

The final EIS will likely be released in early summer, and the first lease sale is expected to occur in 2019.

Canada is party to affairs concerning ANWR. The U.S. and Canadian governments signed an international treaty in 1987 to conserve caribou and their habitats in the region.

While the EIS, released on Dec. 20, includes potential measures to offset environmental impacts, leasing out parcels of land to oil and gas development must happen in accordance with U.S. law. Keeping industry away from coastal plain, the draft plan says, wouldn’t comply with the legislation.

The draft plan proposes several options that divvy up the coastal plain to varying degrees.

Two involve providing leases to about 1.5 million acres, or the entire coastal plain; two sub-alternatives propose offering development access to roughly 1 million acres.

“I think it shows that the U.S. administration is determined to drill for oil in as much of the Arctic refuge as possible,” said Malkolm Boothroyd, a campaigner at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Yukon, adding that there’s “no intention” to respect its ecological importance.

“The Arctic refuge is too important to have drilling anywhere, in the coastal plain, in the calving grounds,” he said.

CPAWS has organized a platform on its website for Canadians to submit comments wired directly to the BLM’s project coordinator, Nicole Hayes.

The legislation stipulates that one lease must be issued in four years and that no fewer than two lease sales, each to include at least 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by 2024.

There was a meeting on Dec. 10 between the federal, Yukon and Northwest Territory governments, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation of Old Crow and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, among others, where a “frank” discussion occurred about possible points of action, Frost said.

Collectively, all parties have vested interests in what could happen in the coastal plain, she said.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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