Interior Ignored Invasive Introduction Into Arctic Waters
Exotic Organisms on Oil Drilling Equipment Excluded from Environmental Reviews
Washington, DC — As the Department of Interior permits offshore oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic, they may also be “permitting” the introduction of invasive species to Alaska. Invasive species impacts analyses were removed from federal environmental reviews for offshore exploratory permits, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The prospect of invasive introductions continues to loom as a real danger with experts warning that “many gaps remain in the current strategy to prevent marine species transfers” into Arctic waters.
Last week, a jack-up drilling rig brought to Alaska’s Cook Inlet from Singapore, may also have brought invasive mollusks attached to the rig’s legs. Alaska Fish & Game officials have requested samples from the drilling rig’s owner, as the state wildlife agency has limited authorities to inspect the rig. Principal responsibility for preventing non-native species from being introduced by ships rests with the U.S. Coast Guard, but this apparently infested rig passed a Coast Guard inspection.
One international expert, Dr. Gregory Ruiz based at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, warned of vulnerabilities in current approaches in a prescient email exchange with federal and state officials back in March 2006. Dr. Ruiz cited “many gaps” in anti-invasive safeguards, including –
- Vague Standards. Hull cleaning standards are “largely undefined… the frequency of cleaning or magnitude of fouling is not explicit. Unlike ballast water, there are few contemporary studies of hull fouling on commercial vessels to define the effect of time, hull husbandry, and vessel type on biofouling – so there is a clear lack of information that would be useful in setting quantitative guidelines or regulations in this area”;
- Rig Loopholes. “Of great concern to me is the transport of drilling platforms /rigs. When a rig is moved from a prior deployment, it is likely heavily fouled – much more so than commercial vessels, which are in motion (having limited residence time for colonization) and move quickly (sheering off organisms)”; and
- Ballast Water. “Coastwise, or domestic-source, traffic arriving to Alaska are not required to treat ballast – and hence the door is wide open for non-native species transfers from such ‘invasion hotspots’ as San Francisco Bay and Long Beach, source ports for many tankers.”
One analyst from the U.S. Department of Interior, Jeff Childs, tried to integrate these concerns into environmental assessments and mitigations for permitting activities. He was stopped by superiors who contended that Interior had “no specific program authorities relevant to the prevention of introduction of invasive species” in the words of Deborah Cranswick, who remains in a senior position with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management which Childs has since left. Ignoring invasive impacts and implementing mitigations to inhibit the introduction of non-native species to U.S. waters remains agency policy today as such impacts are not the basis for Interior permit requirements, despite clear mandates such as those specified in Presidential Executive Order 13112 signed back in 1999.
“Federal assurances of due environmental diligence before opening the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf to drilling are not worth the paper they are written on,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization revealed earlier this month that blowout preventer testing was incomplete and cursory, at best. “Many of the real ecological risks, such as invasive species, still are not even being examined.”
In 2010, just weeks before the BP Gulf blowout, the Government Accountability Office issued a report which found that Interior routinely “hindered their [scientists’ and analysts’] ability to complete sound environmental analyses” in reviewing Alaskan offshore drilling projects. Those restrictive conditions prevail today, PEER contends, preventing accurate assessments of environmental risks of marine activities for which it is issuing permits – invasive species introduction being just one example.