The Wilderness Society is pulling out all the stops to protect Arctic animals from the negative impacts of oil and gas development.
Please support our efforts to protect these animals by becoming a member of The Wilderness Society right now. By becoming one of 2,500 new and renewed members by March 30, you'll help us further our work to convince the Minerals Management Service to halt oil and gas leases in Arctic Ocean waters off Alaska's norhtern coast.
Read our story about what’s at risk and then please join us in the effort to save Arctic wildlife!
Arctic Drilling: More is at risk than you think
By Anne Gore
At first glance, the Arctic Ocean seems a frozen, forbidding place. But, the Inupiaq and Yupik natives who have made their home along Alaska’s northern coast for thousands of years know it’s a veritable garden.
We know that, too. That’s why the Wilderness Society together with our partners, including many native communities directly impacted by proposals to drill offshore, is launching a major campaign to urge the federal government to slow the pace of energy development in the Arctic.
The risks of oil and gas development in the Arctic are just too great. Oil spills are inevitable, and difficult to contain. No clean-up technology exists for spills in icy water. And, Arctic ecosystems are especially vulnerable to pollution.
A Garden of Biological Riches
Comprised of the Beaufort Sea to the East and the Chukchi Sea to the West, the Arctic Ocean is covered in ice for much of the year. But, closer to shore, the waters are shallow, and the ice seasonal. It is here, where land and sea meet, that a surprisingly abundant web of life flourishes.
Rich sediment on the shallow sea floor supports worms, anemones, starfish, mollusks, and clams, which in turn feed herds of walrus, and larger fish.
The ice itself is also full of life. Shrimp-like crustaceans and algae live under and between ice floes, providing food for fish. The fish, in turn, feed the ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon seals that hunt from the floating ice. At the top of the food chain are polar bears. Several species of whales and hundreds of birds also thrive here.
Native people built a way of life around these animals, and their traditions still carry on today. But, that way of life is threatened.
Or, the Oil Industry’s Final Frontier?
Where native people and conservation organizations see ecological and cultural value, the oil industry sees mineral wealth. The continental shelf beneath the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea is not only rich in biological resources, but is also the location of untapped hydrocarbon resources.
During the Bush Administration, the oil industry gained unprecedented access to these reserves. Just last year, millions of acres of leases were sold in the Chukchi Sea, and several major oil companies began seismic testing this summer.
Now, the Minerals Management Service has proposed another plan that could result in many more leases across the Arctic Ocean — more than 39 million acres of the Chukchi Sea, and 33 million acres of the Beaufort Sea — an area the size of Arizona
In Arctic environments, the impacts of an oil spill can be more severe with longer-term effects. Short seasons for growth and reproduction, low temperatures, and limited sunlight combine to create conditions where Arctic ecosystems are more vulnerable to large-scale catastrophe, and less likely to recover from a spill.
Recall the devastation that occurred after the Exxon-Valdez spill. After 20 years, Prince William Sound is still recovering from that event. Now imagine a place where oil and toxic chemicals break down more slowly, and animals tend to congregate in large groups. A single large spill in the wrong place at the wrong time could devastate whole populations of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
For local communities that depend on these species for subsistence, such an accident is terrifying. To make matters worse, no known technology exists for containing and cleaning an oil spill in ice-filled waters.
Anticipated impacts go well beyond the risk of a spill. Offshore oil and gas development will require massive infrastructure, both onshore and off, including roads and pipelines that can fragment and damage sensitive tundra and sea floor habitat. Increased air, land, and marine traffic will also cause disruptions to these previously undisturbed environments.
The Arctic is already experiencing dramatic impacts as a result of climate change. We know very little about what changes are yet to come and how species will react. Adding the inevitable stress of oil and gas development to an already fragile equation is unwise.
Calling a Timeout
The Wilderness Society is calling for more scientific research to better understand how the Arctic’s unique resources might be impacted by development. We are also formally urging the Minerals Management Service to begin monitoring conditions now, before any development begins, and to include ongoing monitoring in management plans for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
Walrus and pup.
Animal remains from Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaska. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.