Polar bear. Photo by Ken Whitten.
I recently had the chance to see Arctic Tale, a National Geographic documentary film geared towards children that tells the story of a young polar bear (Nanu) and walrus (Seela) from birth to adulthood. The movie touches on a few examples of how climate change is affecting these animals and pulls at the heartstrings in the process.
In one scene, Nanu’s brother collapses from hunger and exhaustion. He dies and has to be left behind as his mother and sister move on in search of food.
The movie relies on footage captured over the course of 15 years, so Nanu and Seela are fictional composites of multiple animals. But the story of their fragile existence is no less real. If anything, it is far more tragic in real life.
Despite some progress in May of this year when the polar bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Department of Interior cited melting Arctic sea ice as the primary reason for listing, the decision also came with a caveat. Thehe listing could not be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This stipulation has allowed oil and gas exploration and development planning to proceed unhindered and the Bush administration has taken full advantage.
A few months prior to the ESA listing, in February 2008, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) held an auction for oil and gas leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. This summer, the companies that bought those leases began seismic tests. Facilitating this aggressive development agenda is the MMS’s five-year plan for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which proposes opening even more of the rich Arctic waters to oil and gas industry access. At the same time, a new expedited nationwide offshore leasing and drilling plan includes these areas, as well as Bristol Bay. (view a map of leasing on Alaskas' North Slope and Arctic seas)
Bush administration policies have opened some 30 million acres in Arctic Alaska—an area the size of Pennsylvania—to oil and gas drilling. Only the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off-limits, and as we know from the attention it received during the presidential campaign, even that is not safe.
It’s not that The Wilderness Society is opposed to oil development in the Arctic. Prudhoe Bay has been producing oil for more than 30 years. What concerns us is the scale and pace at which decisions are being made, and how little consideration is being given to the cumulative impacts of proposed development activities, climate change, and the interests of local people. We also know that, despite industry declarations to the contrary, oil development is simply not environmentally friendly. Especially in frozen sea conditions, it is difficult if not impossible to contain an oil spill. The technology doesn’t yet exist.
With sea ice melting at alarming rates, polar bears, along with the birds, mammals, and fish that make up this rich Arctic environment, already have it hard enough. National Geographic’s Arctic Tale ends on a relatively happy note, with the polar bear and walrus finding mates and continuing the cycle of life.
Unless dramatic steps are taken to halt the push to drill every last inch of America’s Arctic coast and seas, however, the real life Arctic Tale is likely to be much more tragic.