Porcupine caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2010. The Yukon government is calling for a redo of the draft environmental impact statement concerning the possibility ofopening up part of the ANWR to industrial development. (Malkolm Boothroyd/Yukon News file)

Yukon government gets tough in response to U.S. draft development plan for ANWR

‘The main take home point is we’re asking for a supplemental EIS’

The Yukon government is calling for a redo of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) concerning the possibility of opening up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to industrial development.

The through-line of its response, which was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on March 13, the final day for comments to be entered, is that the draft plan is essentially insufficient, requiring more rigorous analysis of potential effects to the environment, wildlife and Indigenous cultures.

“The main take-home point is we’re asking for a supplemental EIS,” said Mike Suitor, a northern Yukon biologist with the environment department, adding that new information is not being used — a Canadian report that was released in February, for instance, contests science included in the U.S. plan.

This report is imprinted in the Yukon government’s response when it says there’s an absence of quantitative analysis to evaluate impacts “on all species or ensure they will not result in significant adverse impacts to environmental or socio-economic values.”

“Basically what we’re saying is that they need to go back and relook at the alternatives they developed,” Suitor said. “The whole basis on which they built arguments in the environmental impact statement is based on qualitative analyses that is, in some cases, incorrect or flawed in the logic they followed.”

Pauline Frost, Yukon’s minister of environment, said that the objective of the Yukon government’s response is to gauge impacts on caribou, polar bears and Gwich’in culture.

“We’re looking at the submission as creating the detailed scientific analysis that is required,” she said.

“We remain opposed to drilling in the sensitive area of the (Porcupine caribou) herd’s calving grounds. … We stand united with our partners in that conviction.”

Four options in the draft EIS, released in late December, provide certain degrees of protection for the herd.

Two involve providing lease sales for the entire program area, roughly 1.5 million acres. The remaining options say portions of the coastal plain would be off limits to oil and gas interests. No surface occupancy, a prohibition on all or some surface disturbances, would apply to each option within certain areas within the coastal plain, also referred to as 1002.

The Yukon government’s response says that, as it stands, these alternatives “present a high risk of adversely impacting” the Porcupine caribou herd, one reason being that population level impacts have not been assessed.

A supplemental EIS would have revised alternatives outlining greater surety of protections for species and not exceed the 800,000-acre minimum lease as required by the law, the response says, adding that all proposed lease parcels go beyond what’s allotted in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed Congress in 2017.

The U.S. 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.

In many ways, the Yukon government’s response pokes holes in the draft EIS, offering recommendations to remedy issues going forward.

It says that design elements fail to take herd movements into account, “and some information provided to support the conclusions of the draft EIS are incorrect.”

The effects of climate change aren’t adequately reflected in it, the response says, and calving areas are misrepresented.

“There is a need to identify protective measures throughout the proposed development as calving is not spatially or temporally static and may occur anywhere in the proposed leasing areas,” it says, noting that changes in weather can influence where the herd rears its young.

According to the Canadian scientific report, calves have higher survival rates if born in the coastal plain of ANWR.

Baseline data used in the draft EIS for pinpointing the herd’s locations is “minimal and insufficient,” the response says. This is because it failed to use up-to-date information.

“The most recent (Porcupine caribou herd) data (including satellite GPS collar locations from 2012 to July 2018) was made available by the Government of Yukon to the Bureau of Land Management and its consultants in July 2018 for the purposes of developing a draft EIS,” the response says. “However, data and much of the information presented in the draft EIS is dated and focuses on PCH analyses completed prior to the release of the 1002 Report” (completed in 2002).

“An understanding of the ecology of the species, including its use of a specific area, is required to design successful management interventions,” it says.

Suitor said that the draft EIS does a “cursory” review of Canadian subsistence harvesting, despite international agreements such as one signed in 1987 that seeks to conserve the Porcupine caribou herd. This agreement has a clause that covers traditional usages of caribou in both countries.

The draft EIS notes that from 1992 to 1994 Canadians accounted for 85 per cent of the harvest, but the Yukon government says they “are not fully considered.”

“The draft EIS is deficient with respect to trans-boundary effects because it does not provide equal consideration and analysis of how the project will impact Canadian subsistence users,” the response says. “A final significant deficiency is that the draft EIS is silent on mitigations for Canadian subsistence users.”

While the draft EIS outlines objectives concerning public health impacts, it skips over cultural effects, the response says.

“This deficiency should be addressed through a more complete analysis of impacts to all users of this trans-boundary herd,” it says.

There are also problems when it comes to polar bears, according to the response.

As a result of receding sea ice, polar bear have changed their behaviour and diet, spending more time on land, it says.

Seventy-seven per cent of the leasing program is on lands “identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical denning habitat for polar bears,” the response says. As a result, it continues, development has a “great” potential to affect them.

Assessing this relationship further, it notes, is a “prerequisite to development.”

“In our view, polar bear den sites and denning areas should be subject to no surface occupancy and timing limitation restrictions regardless of where they occur within the identified critical habitat,” it says, adding that 100 per cent of critical denning habitats in the leasing program area should be subject to stipulation five, which calls for minimizing disturbances to polar bears and their dens.

More bears on land coupled with possible development in the coastal plain poses a higher chance of bear-human conflict, the response says.

“A supplemental EIS should provide a modelled, predicted impact of human-polar bear conflicts as a result of the leasing program on the status of the population as well as the harvest quota for local communities.”

In 1973, an international agreement was struck pertaining to polar bears. Included are provisions to protect bear habitats, among other things. It’s missing in the draft EIS and needs to included, the response says.

The draft EIS says 96 per cent of the coastal plain are wetlands. There’s an international agreement between Canada and the U.S. about this, as well. Signed in 1971, it promotes the “wise use” of the wetlands.

“The draft EIS’ treatment of wetlands in insufficient,” the response says.

As reported by the News, a final EIS will likely be released in early summer. The first lease sale is expected to occur this year.

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

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