Public Overwhelmingly Calls for Halt to Development in Arctic Ocean

Mar 30, 2009

WASHINGTON – More than 150,000 people have asked the federal government to halt plans currently in process to open 73.4 million acres of the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas leasing – the largest block of Arctic Ocean waters yet to be offered to the oil and gas industry.

In the public comment period that closed today, thousands of people from across the country asked the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) to call for a timeout on all industrial activity in the Arctic, until a precautionary conservation and energy plan is developed. The comments were submitted on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for four lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, due to take place from 2010- 2012. The draft EIS – pushed through by the Bush administration in its waning days in office - proposes to conduct the lease sales, despite the risks to the already stressed Arctic ecosystem.

“The unique and fragile Arctic Ocean is already suffering from climate change and people across the country understand the critical need to protect it from a risky rush to drill,” said David Dickson, Western Arctic & Oceans Program Director for Alaska Wilderness League. “We hope the Obama administration will suspend all new industrial activities until a sound, science-based, comprehensive plan for America’s Arctic is developed that ensures no further harm.”

In his waning days in office, Bush also pushed through a draft of a new offshore drilling plan that would add additional lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and expand the Arctic Ocean’s leasing area by 76 percent. The Obama administration has since extended the public comment period on the Bush offshore plan and is holding hearings around the country next month to gather more information.

“We simply can’t allow giveaways to Big Oil, such as the 70 million acres offered in the Arctic, to pass for an energy policy—especially in an area where our addiction to fossil fuels is already endangering wildlife and threatening traditional communities,” said Whit Sheard, Alaska Program Director for Pacific Environment.

“The Bush Administration’s aggressive leasing plan for the Arctic Ocean ran roughshod over the interests of Native communities and the integrity of sound science. We are hopeful that the Obama administration will heed the call of these hundreds of thousands of Americans and implement a precautionary and science-based plan for managing our fragile arctic resources,” said Sean Babington with Earthjustice.

The imposing threats of industrialization are compounded by the fact that the Arctic region is already under immense stress from the impacts of climate change – warming in the Arctic is occurring at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The Arctic is the “least studied and most poorly understood area on Earth,” according to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Thus, the environmental and social impacts of oil and gas development have been poorly studied and documented.

“As the crisis caused by global warming arrives sooner than anticipated in the Arctic, we have to review existing policies that would create further stress on the fragile ecosystems and wildlife of this region. That includes revisiting risky proposals to expand offshore oil drilling in the middle of eroding sea ice -- conditions that would prevent cleanup of inevitable oil spills,” said Richard Charter, government relations consultant with Defenders of Wildlife. “A prior administration's mistakes need not continue, and should not be repeated.”

As the Arctic environment melts at a rapidly accelerating pace, Arctic wildlife, including the threatened polar bear, endangered bowhead whale, ribbon seal and Pacific walrus, are increasingly at risk. Alaska Natives, who have sustained themselves for thousands of years on the bounty of the Arctic Ocean, watch as their way of life becomes increasingly imperiled.

“These misguided lease sales would be a disaster for the polar bear,” said Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity. “How Secretary of the Interior Salazar proceeds is a litmus test for whether he can move beyond short-sighted Bush-era drill policies towards a future that protects arctic species like the polar bear.”

“The Bush administration worked furiously to fast track drilling in the Arctic Ocean. They didn’t take the time to fully study how oil spills and development would impact the communities and wildlife that live along the coast. Polar bears, walruses and whales are already struggling to survive in the face of global warming. Native communities that rely on subsistence for survival are already challenged by impacts from a warming Arctic. An oil spill could tip the balance against them,” said Sierra Club Alaska representative Trish Rolfe. “The Obama administration has decided to take another look at this plan. We have a chance now to get it right. We should let science, not oil executives, guide decisions about drilling in the Arctic Ocean.”

Contacts

Emilie Surrusco, Alaska Wilderness League, 202-544-5205
Taldi Walter, Audubon Alaska, 907-276-7034
Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, 907-274-1110
Cat Lazaroff, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-3270
Sean Babington, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x202
Whit Sheard, Pacific Environment, 907-982-7095
Kristina Johnson, Sierra Club, 415-977-5619
Anne Gore, The Wilderness Society, 907-272-9453