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10 Filling Knowledge Gaps The Committee on Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope was charged with identifying gaps in knowledge that hinder iden- tification of cumulative effects and with assessing their causes and importance. Those tasks were made more diffi- cult because data were not always available or were not co- ordinated or comprehensive, although much is known about the region. This chapter discusses the shortcomings of the data and ways to improve the collection and organization of new information to help future assessments. Specific needs to inform decisions about oil and gas activities on the North Slope also are described. A great deal of time and effort had been invested in studying North Slope environments and assessing the effects of oil and gas activities there. Some of the research recom- mendations that follow are for new investigations, but many of them represent a sharpening of the focus and the emphasis of current efforts. NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING Decisions about the conditions for and requirements of permitting industrial activities on the North Slope are made by many federal, state, and municipal agencies. Communi- cation and coordination among those agencies have been weak and sporadic. Permitting decisions generally have been made one case at a time without a comprehensive plan to identify the scope, intensity, direction, or consequences of industrial activities that are judged appropriate and desir- able. Similarly, the minimal rehabilitation of disturbed habi- tat has occurred without an overall plan to identify land-use goals, objectives to achieve them, performance criteria, or monitoring requirements. Little consideration has been given to how different future trajectories would be viewed by dif- ferent groups, including North Slope residents. In particular, there has been no comprehensive estimate of the costs of dismantlement and removal of infrastructure 150 and subsequent restoration and rehabilitation (DRR) of af- fected North Slope areas. This is important because although DRR is assumed in some permits and plans, it will almost surely cost much more than the amount of money available. Extrapolation from estimates for individual project plans suggests a total cost of billions of dollars. However, existing state and federal bonding requirements are not even remotely sufficient to underwrite potential DRR costs on the North Slope. Because the obligation to restore abandoned sites is unclear and the financial resources to do so are so uncertain, the committee judges it likely that, absent a change in those constraints, most of the disturbed North Slope habitat will never be rehabilitated or restored. What is needed is a slope- wide land-use plan and an understanding of the likely costs and effectiveness of various DRR approaches. The quality, accessibility, and extent of data to evaluate effects and their accumulation also is inadequate. In many cases, the committee did obtain necessary data, and we are grateful for the cooperation and efforts of state, federal, and local governments; industry; environmental groups; indi- vidual researchers; the North Slope Borough; and interested members of the public. But often the committee had difficul- ties in obtaining data it needed. Sometimes the data did not exist, and other times the data were less useful than they could have been. The reasons for these difficulties included confidentiality, particularly for identifying the locations of seismic exploration; a failure to analyze information from agency or industry files; the lack of comparability of data collected by various agencies; and the lack of long-term data sets that could be used to assess or anticipate future accumu- lating effects. For example, most of the data acquired from water-quality monitoring programs, which are required by discharge permits, are retained by the principal permitting agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and are not readily available. Records also are kept by individual opera- tors, but they are not summarized, and there are few annual reports.
FILLING KNOWLEDGE GAPS Two kinds of comprehensive planning are needed to overcome these shortcomings and to better explain and man- age the environmental effects of oil and gas activities on Alaska's North Slope and their accumulation. The first is for a comprehensive slope-wide land-use plan to guide indus- trial development and assist in planning for the eventual de- parture of the oil and gas industry from the region. The plan should identify land-use goals and specify restoration and rehabilitation objectives to achieve them. It should include specific performance criteria and monitoring requirements tied to restoration and rehabilitation objectives, and it should provide an inventory of current facilities and gravel fill, in- cluding an assessment of the nature and extent of contamina- tion. It should specifically include plans for decommission- ing, abandonment, and restoration and rehabilitation once oil and gas production is no longer viable. Even if changing oil prices, new hydrocarbon discoveries, disintegrating in- frastructure, changing political arrangements, and other un- foreseen factors were to make such a plan obsolete before it could be implemented, the exercises would provide a shared vision of goals for the North Slope and help to identify areas where knowledge is inadequate, and would thus help to guide research and monitoring. The second need is for a coordinated and comprehen- sive research plan. This should include the following: · A regional assessment of ecological and human val- ues that have various degrees of sensitivity to disturbance with a view to ranking their importance and the urgency of addressing them. . ~7 Important research questions developed through col- laborative efforts of scientists, local communities, industry, interested members of the public, and regulatory agencies. · Identification of key indicators of environmental sta- tus and trends and how they will be measured. To increase the likelihood that the research would be of the broadest usefulness in decision making and to have the greatest scientific validity, the following approaches should be incorporated into the research: . Traditional and local knowledge, especially informa- tion gathered by subsistence hunters, should be incorporated into the research plan at all stages of research, from study design through interpretation and presentation of the results. · Provision should be made for data gathered and man- aged by various agencies to be comparable and accessible, using the same units and standards of data quality wherever possible. For example, geographic information systems (GIS) are powerful planning tools to help in developing a slope-wide land-management plan. A single site should be established where data are stored and can be accessed. · Where possible, a hypothesis to be tested should be identified and appropriate controls established before data are collected. 151 · Thorough, independent peer review should be con- ducted at all stages of the research, from study design to publication of results. SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION NEEDS Ecosystem-Level Research Most ecological research in the Prudhoe Bay region has focused on local studies of the behavior and population dy- namics of animal species. Patterns and processes at landscape scales, as well as nutrient cycling and energy flows, have re- ceived relatively little attention. Nevertheless, the research that has been done has identified the need for, and importance of, studies of population dynamics over large areas and the need to assess how industrial activities on the North Slope are affecting the productivity of tundra ecosystems. Alterations of flow patterns of water across the Arctic Coastal Plain, thermokarsting of tundra adjacent to roads and off-road path- ways, and changes of albedo attributable to dust are all likely to influence plant community composition; rates of photosyn- thesis and decomposition; and efficiencies of energy transfer between plants, herbivores, and carnivores. Thus, tundra within an oil field is likely to differ in many ways from that in an unaffected ecosystem, yet the extent of the differences and the processes that cause them are largely unknown. To assess these differences, protected areas should be established similar to those established by the National Sci- ence Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, in comparable areas within and outside the indus- trial complex and accessible to researchers. Currently the LTER site closest to the area of concern is at Toolik Lake site in the foothills of the Brooks Range, about 250 km to the south. Long-term studies should be initiated to assess the influence of industrial activities on fluxes of energy and nu- trients in these systems. Particular attention should be paid to those processes most likely to be altered with the objec- tive of identifying ways to reduce the accumulation of unde- sirable effects, whether by avoiding particularly vulnerable areas or by adjusting the nature of activities to reduce the degree to which ecosystem processes are affected. Human-Health Effects The effects of oil and gas activities on human health have not been well documented. Some human-health effects of encroachment of industrial civilization into Alaska Na- tive communities are well known, such as the increased use of alcohol and drugs, increased obesity, and other societal ills. But on the North Slope, it is not possible with available data to say to what degree they are the direct result of oil and gas activities. Other concerns are widespread among Native residents of the North Slope, including concerns about air pollution, contamination of water and food, and noise. To some unknown degree the increased financial resources from
152 oil taxes and royalties have balanced adverse health effects by significantly improving the quality and availability of medical care on the North Slope. The human-health effects of oil and gas activities constitute one of the areas in greatest need of additional reliable information. Offshore Oil Spills The committee heard many comments indicating that oil spills are a grave concern among North Slope residents, especially the threat of a large offshore spill. Although there have been no large oil spills in waters off the North Slope, they are such a major concern that we make some comments here about possible research into mitigating their effects, rec- ognizing that this is somewhat beyond our charge. The re- sults of such research would help to refine future assess- ments of how the effects of major spills accumulate. Considerable research has been done on methods of cleaning up spills and on mitigating some of their effects (see for example, Allen 1988, 1999, 2000; Lindstedt-Siva 1992; NRC 1989, 2003~. This committee has neither delib- erated about the most important research topics for oil-spill cleanup and mitigation, nor has it attempted to reach a con- sensus on whether, when, and how experimental oil spills might be used in such a research program. Nonetheless, re- search in a variety of areas seems to be warranted, including the use of noise to move bowhead whales and perhaps other marine mammals away from areas affected by a spill. It would also be useful to have the results of research on the effectiveness and environmental liabilities and advantages of nonmechanical methods of cleaning up oil spilled in the sea (for example, dispersants, in-situ burning), especially in broken-ice conditions. Such research might be of great value in decision making and in formulating the comprehensive plans that the committee identified as being needed. Research and Human Communities People and their communities interact with information needs both as consultants and as subjects. As a result, infor- mation about the accumulation of effects is missing or sparse in several areas. Therefore, if better assessment is to occur, the following areas need attention: . Research on the North Slope, regardless of its sub- ject matter, should occur as a cooperative endeavor with lo- cal communities. Traditional and local knowledge of the physical environment, the biota, and the human communi- ties on the North Slope is comprehensive and important. This information should be incorporated into research efforts, from the identification of topics and study design through interpretation and presentation of results. · Balancing economic benefits of oil and gas activities against loss of traditional knowledge and language often is a dilemma for North Slope residents. Research should identify CUMULATIVE EFFECTS OF ALASKA NORTH SLOPE OIL AND GAS the specific lifestyle benefits and threats that North Slope residents attach to oil and gas industrial activity. This re- search should target how much oil and gas activities, as dis- tinguished from other factors, are associated with increasing sociocultural change. · Research should establish how oil and gas activities and their effects those deemed positive or negative have influenced community and individual behavior. · Research should identify the direct and indirect mon- etary rewards and costs (including passive-use values) asso- ciated with petroleum development on the North Slope. The research should describe rewards and costs for North Slope residents as well as for nonresidents, and it should qualita- tively describe effects that cannot be converted to money. · Research should be conducted on how to best man- age effects of rapid social, economic, cultural, and spiritual changes for the Inupiat and Gwich'in of the North Slope and Alaska. Zones of Influence Technological developments have greatly reduced the "footprint" of new industrial activities on the North Slope. For example, horizontal drilling and pad refrigeration allow well-heads to be spaced closely on smaller pads. The use of ice roads allows exploration in the winter when its effects on tundra vegetation are greatly reduced. Gravel pads generally are now constructed only for successful exploration wells, and many wells need not be served by permanent gravel roads. Underground injection has eliminated the need for reserve pits to accommodate wastes. Above-ground pipelines are still required, however. Clearly, those advances have greatly reduced the incre- mental direct effects of new industrial activities on North Slope environments and organisms. Nevertheless, the effects of industrial activities are not limited to the footprints or their immediate vicinity. The committee has identified a va- riety of influences that extend varying distances from actual facilities. They range from effects on animals that are attrib- utable to gravel roads and pads and that extend up to a few kilometers, to the influence of industrial structures on visual aspects of the landscape, which can extend as far as 100 km (60 ml). The examples identified by the committee do not list all of the ways that consequences of activities extend beyond the physical footprint because there are no data to estimate how, why, and to what distance many receptors could be influenced. The full accumulation of the effects of oil and gas activities to date, as well as in the future, cannot be as- sessed without much better quantitative information about the ways in which effects extend for varying distances. Current activities should be studied to identify zones of influence of industrial activities and structures on various components of the North Slope environment. Future indus- trial activities and structures should be studied to generate
FILLING KNOWLEDGE GAPS data showing how and why various receptors are affected by those activities and the distances over which those effects occur. Air Contamination and its Effects Air pollution on the North Slope is a concern to resi- dents, and its effects could accumulate. There has been little research to quantify the contribution of local emissions from oil and gas facilities or to determine how local and regional air masses and their contaminants interact. The lack of predevelopment baseline data further hampers assessment of locally and distantly produced pollution on North Slope air quality. No monitoring system (except for tracking of priority pollutants from 1986 through 2002 at a limited number of sites) has been established to provide a quantitative baseline of spatial and temporal trends in North Slope air quality. The lack of adequate information limits the accuracy and preci- sion of assessments of past effects and predictions of future accumulation of effects. Given local concerns about air qual- ity and its perceived effects on human health, studies should be undertaken to distinguish between locally derived emis- sions and long-range transport, to determine how they inter- act, and if necessary to monitor potential human exposure to air contaminants. Seismic Exploration and Other Off-Roacl Traffic Networks of seismic and other off-road vehicle trails as well as ice roads and ice pads cover extensive areas of the tundra. They are a concern because of the damage they do to vegetation and their visibility from the air. The development of new seismic data-acquisition methods, such as light- weight, rubber tracked equipment, might reduce the effects of those activities by reducing the weight, tracks, or number of vehicles used, but the degree to which tundra damage will be reduced is unknown. The current regulations governing minimum snow depth (average 15 cm [6 in. and frost penetration (30 cm [12 in. to allow seismic activities on the tundra are not based on re- search and do not account for variations in snow depth caused by topography or differential drifting. Thus, the degree of pro- tection they provide to tundra is unknown. Much of the infor- mation regarding the location of seismic activities is consid- ered proprietary and is not available to researchers or the public. This information is critical for determining the areas affected and the long-term effects of these activities. Studies of the effects and persistence of the trails of off- road vehicles are needed, including their long-term visibility from the air. Studies are needed to determine the amount of snow and the frost penetration required to adequately protect the tundra from the effects of seismic exploration. Exploration is expanding beyond the current area of ac- tivity, both southward into the foothills of the Brooks Range 153 and westward well into the National Petroleum Reserve- Alaska (Chapter 5~. New areas for oil and gas exploration are likely to differ substantially from current areas of activ- ity. To understand, predict, and manage cumulative environ- mental effects in the new areas, their environments need to be characterized. This should include descriptions of topog- raphy; permafrost conditions; sand, gravel, and water avail- ability; hydrological conditions; and biotic communities. Caribou and Bowheacl Whales A better understanding is needed of the seasonal habitat requirements of caribou, natural environment constraints, details of the physiology of reproductive tradeoffs, and how disturbance affects them in the Arctic. Studies are needed to determine the qualitative relation- ship between the noise generated by offshore operations and the migratory and acoustic behavior of bowhead whales. The studies should include analysis of the effects of multiple noise sources. Better information is also needed about the degree to which bowheads feed in the Alaskan portion of the Beaufort Sea. Consequences of Water Withdrawals Water for ice roads, pads, and other purposes is taken from lakes on the North Slope. Because most lakes in the existing development area between the Colville and Saga- vanirktok rivers are less than 1.8 m (6 ft) deep, and hence freeze to the bottom, few fish are present and the impacts on them have been minimal. As development spreads into re- gions with deeper lakes, such as the Colville delta and the eastern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, there is greater potential to affect fish populations within lakes. Under current Alaska Department of Fish and Game policy, water withdrawals from fish-bearing lakes are lim- ited to 15% of the estimated minimum water volume during winter to retain most of the water for wintering fish. The 15% criterion was set arbitrarily in the absence of data to support an alternative, and no research has been conducted to determine what the effects of withdrawals are on popula- tions of invertebrates in the lakes and, hence, food supplies for vertebrates. As of late 2002 there were no restrictions on removal of water from fishless lakes. An initial study of the 15% criterion should determine the degree to which that criterion prevents harm to fish and invertebrates. A study of the effects of withdrawing water from lakes without fish should be conducted to assess the degree to which current water use affects biota associated with these water bodies. Dealing with Uncertainties Actions undertaken to identify and reduce the undesir- able effects of interactions among effecters and receptors
154 should greatly improve the quality and quantity of data in fu- ture decision making. However, the information will never be sufficient to eliminate uncertainty in future problem solving. Some species, such as marine mammals and fishes, are intrin- sically difficult to study. Detecting even fairly important changes in their population densities and demographic param- eters could be impossible, no matter how much money is avail- able to study them. Also, adequate controls could be impos- sible to establish. Informative manipulations of populations of rare and endangered species are legally constrained. Experi- mental oil spills could be politically unacceptable. Distin- guishing between changes attributable to specific oil and gas activities and those that are the results of other causes is often difficult because multiple factors typically influence the re- ceptors of interest. Finally, there is uncertainty about refer- ence states or conditions because of environmental factors, such as climate change over time and space. Some of the above problems cannot be solved, but sci- entific uncertainty can be usefully described by an analysis of the power of the statistical tests being used. When analyz- ing data collected to test a hypothesis that X has an effect on Y. two kinds of errors are possible. First, one can conclude falsely that there is an effect when actually there is none (a Type I error); second, one can conclude falsely that there is no effect when actually there is one (a Type II error). The likelihood of making either kind of error can be reduced by appropriate analyses, but reducing the likelihood of making one type of error always increases the likelihood of the other. The only way to reduce the likelihood of making both kinds of errors simultaneously is to have more data, either through larger or more samples. To assess the consequences of making a Type II error, it is helpful to state the magnitude of the effect that could have CUMULATIVE EFFECTS OF ALASKA NORTH SLOPE OIL AND GAS gone undetected. This is equivalent to asking, "If, on the basis of a statistical test at a chosen significance level, it is concluded that the action has no effect, then how large would an effect have to be for the test to detect it?" The answer is often that the magnitude of statistically undetectable effects is much larger than anyone would have expected. This ques- tion should be explicitly considered and described in design- ing studies to assess the effects of activities already under- taken and the likely consequences of proposed activities on the North Slope. In addition, final results should be accom- panied by a statement of the magnitude of effects that would have escaped detection. Those uncertainties should be clearly communicated to decision makers. More detailed discussion of these and related topics is presented in work by the National Research Council (1995) and Simberloff (1990~. No matter how much information would be desirable, decisions often cannot be deferred. How, then, can the best use be made of the information that is available to inform decision making? This difficult challenge making environ- mental decisions in the face of uncertainty was discussed in detail (with a focus on the Endangered Species Act) by the National Research Council (NRC 1995~. The general topic of environmental decision making under uncertainty often appears under the rubric of the precautionary principle, which says in effect that when there is doubt one should err on the side of the environmental resource. In practice, such an admonition often is not helpful as a guide for making real policy or management decisions. Precaution is a continuous variable, and one person's precaution is another's reckless disregard. The central problem is to characterize people's valuation of risks and rewards and incorporate them into frameworks for risk assessment and management.