In the winter, geese fly south—in the summer, they fly north to Arctic wetlands. Each year, tens of thousands of birds molt, breed, and honk on the shores of Teshekpuk Lake, a dazzling expanse of water surrounded by ponds, streams, wetlands, and tundra.
Caribou come to this lake to hide from Alaska’s ridiculously large mosquitos. (For caribou researchers, “mosquito season” is a technical term.) Polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, make dens along the coast nearby. Historically, they built these homes on sea ice because they eat mostly seals, which they catch by patiently ice fishing. Increasingly, they are having to move onto the shore, where they have less food, as ice melts due to global warming.
On March 13, the Biden administration approved Willow, a ConocoPhillips oil drilling project that will encroach on this ecologically sensitive area. Before it did so, the Fish and Wildlife Service explored the possible impacts to polar bears, including noise pollution, small oil spills, and encounters with humans.
Ultimately, the agency estimated that over Willow’s expected 30 years in operation, no polar bears would be killed. Four polar bears might be—to use a technical term—“hazed”: hit with projectiles to scare them away from people. Likely projectiles include beanbags and rubber bullets; this “hazing,” the FWS concluded, could result in bruising.
The Willow project has captured national attention for its impact on humans, not wildlife. But how Willow will affect polar bears in particular—and the way the potential threat it poses was analyzed by the FWS—reveals a surprising Bush-era legal tactic that’s still shaping the Biden administration’s climate choices.
Melting sea ice is why polar bears became the iconic, then cliché, climate change poster children. Back in 2008, they were the first species to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act explicitly because of global warming.
The FWS assessment leaves out this threat to the polar bears. Environmental and Indigenous groups are taking issue with the omission. On Thursday, March 16, they filed motions for preliminary injunction that ask the courts to halt construction while their cases are considered. Plaintiffs include local groups like Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and Trustees for Alaska, as well as national groups like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. (These are the same plaintiffs who won changes to an earlier Willow proposal back in 2020.)
ConocoPhillips is already building seasonal ice roads for Willow; it will keep building roads but hold off on mining as the courts consider the injunctions.
The lawsuits are about more than just the polar bears; they also concern Biden’s authority to regulate oil production and the government’s responsibility to communities who rely on local caribou herds. The bears arguably aren’t the biggest concern here. But the limited way in which the FWS considered their well-being underscores a level of shortsightedness involved in greenlighting the project.
For starters, one of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and others, argues that the FWS’ “zero polar bears killed” estimate is probably off when it comes to the number of polar bears that could die in direct encounters with people.
But both suits also add a much broader claim about the bears: that FWS should also have evaluated how additional greenhouse gas emissions from the oil drilled at Willow would impact polar bears. According to the other lawsuit against Willow, a drilling-as-usual approach to oil extraction could make polar bears locally extinct in Alaska within 30 years and entirely extinct by the end of the century. Willow furthers that drilling-as-usual approach. (A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said in an email that the project “satisfies all legal requirements.”)
According to an analysis from the Center for American Progress, carbon emissions from Willow—on their own—could cancel out all the emissions reductions from Biden’s renewable energy investments on public lands. But the FSW did not consider the eventual emissions that will result from drilling at Willow when it analyzed how the project might impact polar bears.
“You have to reduce emissions very steeply to save the polar bear,” said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity who helped get polar bears listed as threatened back in 2008. The newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released March 20, states, “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence). There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).” Keeping the planet livable for people as well as polar bears, according to the report, will require “rapid and deep, and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions.” Specifically, the IPCC said last year, “limiting warming to around 2°C (3.6°F) still requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by a quarter by 2030.”
Although the FWS wrestles with all sorts of impacts in its Endangered Species Act reviews, it does not appear to have analyzed the additional greenhouse gas emissions from specific projects in the past 15 years—and possibly ever. (The Department of the Interior declined to comment, citing pending legislation.) This omission hinges on a series of agency memos written back in 2008, in the process of listing the polar bear as a threatened species.
At that time, polar bears, like Willow, were getting a lot of public attention. When the polar bear was up for consideration as a threatened species, 750,000 people commented on the public record. “I read each page,” Siegel said. “Comments from school kids in particular, saying, ‘Dear President, Please list the bear.’ ” In response to Willow, the bear concern is back, in the form of dark “Mom, what’s a polar bear?” TikToks bearing the hashtag #StopWillow.
The Bush administration, which had strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, did eventually list the bear. But when it did, it also put out memos saying that endangered species reviews for specific projects should not factor in project-specific greenhouse gases.
Even though aggregate worldwide emissions were a threat to polar bears, said the suite of memos from the United States Geological Survey, the FWS, the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency, incremental emissions were too hard to evaluate: at that time, the science just wasn’t there.
“It points to various purported sources of uncertainty and says, ‘Gosh, golly, analysis is impossible!’ ” said Siegel. This kind of “weaponized uncertainty,” she said, is a common tactic in climate change denial.
Plenty of uncertainty does, in fact, exist. How will emissions from the oil specifically drilled at Willow affect the temperature and, in turn, the bears living near Teshekpuk Lake? It was hard to say in the Bush era, and it’s still hard to say now. While climate attribution has improved significantly, Tapio Schneider, a climate modeler at the California Institute of Technology, said in an email that when it comes to predicting risks accurately at a small scale, “the situation has not fundamentally changed.”
Today, however, industries like banking and insurance are increasingly trying to predict climate risks at polar bear–impact scales in order to value property. Their best options for doing so can’t offer certainty. But modelers are at least having robust conversations about how to do the best we can with what we have. Even the United States Geological Survey, which wrote the first Bush-era memo, is doing this kind of work. (The FAQ for one of its Alaska climate-modeling tools says, “Projections are always improving incrementally. Don’t wait for a better projection—you’ll always be waiting.”)
The FWS could grapple with those nuances as it creates its guidance too. It could be making a best guess about how project-level emissions will affect the bears, outlining what we can and can’t know, and offering multiple ways of framing the problem to inform decision-makers.
Instead, the FWS wrote in its National Petroleum Reserve Integrated Activity Plan opinion, “We identify no mechanisms by which the IAP would affect the availability of sea ice proximal to terrestrial denning habitat. Note that specific climate change-related effects that may occur in the Action Area in the future cannot be attributed to any greenhouse gas emissions resulting from consumption of petroleum produced at drilling sites and thus are not considered effects of production; Service Policy Memorandum dated May 14, 2008.”
The reserve plan paved the way for Willow. If it moves forward, Willow itself will produce millions of tons of CO2, and it will likely kick off more drilling in the reserve.
When the Biden administration updated the plan for the reserve in 2022, it chose an option that would allow ConocoPhillips to drill in the “special area” surrounding Teshekpuk Lake. It also failed to reckon with how drilling an entire reserve’s worth of oil leases would impact polar bears.
If the polar bears are to survive, at some point, for some drilling proposal, some administration will have to take responsibility for thinking about not just whether a few of them may be bruised but also the fact that less drilling—and soon—may be the only thing that will save them.