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Oil & Gas Industry Fight Alaska Seal Protections

(CN) - Listing Alaska's ringed seal as a threatened species based on climate change is unwarranted and unsupported by science, the oil and gas industry claim in court.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on Dec. 23 in Anchorage Federal Court, challenging the decision to list the arctic subspecies of ringed seal (Phoca hispida hispida) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The plaintiffs claim there is no evidence that climate change will affect ringed seals.

"In the listing rule, NMFS determined that the arctic subspecies of ringed seal is abundant, wide-ranging, genetically diverse and otherwise healthy, but is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future as a result of the projected effects of climate change on its habitat," the complaint states.

But the oil and gas industry claims "there is no scientific data linking the effects of climate change in the arctic and the health, reproduction, survival or conservation of arctic ringed seals."

Ringed seals are the smallest and most common seal in the arctic, growing to about 5 feet long and 110 to 150 lbs. They live up to 30 years, and need Arctic ice packs and floes where females build ice caves to give birth and raise their young.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the NMFS for the seal's threatened status in 2008, claims global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions will all but wipe out the critical habitat sometime this century.

"There is no scientific debate," Center for Biological Diversity Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin told Courthouse News. "Scientists agree that global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

"Their complaint is that the climate models can't pinpoint when there will be so little sea ice left, that the seals can't survive, but we know they are going to lose their habitat and we know it's going to happen in this century."

The industry claims the decision to list the seal based on climate change is "arbitrary" because there is no way of knowing how climate change will affect the species.

"Although the magnitude of climate change is uncertain, there are projections that the Arctic climate will warm and that sea ice will decline in extent and thickness in the future," according to the lawsuit. "However, there is great uncertainty regarding the biological responses of Arctic ringed seals that are likely to follow any physical change to Arctic habitat or the potential acidification of the oceans."

The industry claims that the NMFS's projections up to the year 2100 are unrealistic.

"Neither the best available scientific data and information, nor the administrative record as a whole, supports a determination that projections of climate change in the Arctic out to 2100 are reliable for use in the ESA listing of the ... ringed seal," the complaint states. "NMFS has not provided a rational explanation, based on record evidence, supporting its reliance on 2100 as the foreseeable future."

But the Center for Biological Diversity says the effects of climate change on the seal are a reality, as are the effects of oil and gas exploration.

"The scientific community agrees the Earth will continue to warm," Noblin said. "The ringed seal's habitat is the arctic environment where Shell wants to drill, and where gas and oil development is a threat to the seal, not just due to the direct impacts from noise and human disturbance, but if there is an oil spill, which would also affect polar bears because seals are a food source."

Oil companies must get drilling permits from the NMFS and ensure their operations do not disturb seal habitat.

"You would have to ask them what it means having the ringed seal listed as a threatened species, but for the oil companies, I'd say it's about saving a little cash out of the whole process, seeing if they can save a few bucks not having to consider the impacts on seals," she said.

Attorneys' for the plaintiff, Jeffrey Leppo and Ryan Steen, in Seattle, did not return phone seeking for comment.

The plaintiffs ask the court to vacate the NMFS's listing of the ringed seal as a threatened species until it complies with the ESA and the Administrative Procedures Act.

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