Lessons from the Gulf Oil Spill: Don’t let sensitive Arctic waters be next

Walrus and pup.

As the Gulf Coast continues to endure one of the worst oil spills and environmental disasters in U.S. history, many people are reconsidering off-shore drilling as a viable solution for America’s energy needs.

Senators from coastal states are already threatening to stop potential climate and energy legislation that would continue offshore drilling, and already a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia has been cancelled as the first oil-slicked birds, turtles, and mammals are being found near the barrier islands in Louisiana.

While coastal states around the country are asking themselves “what would happen here?”, The Wilderness Society is taking a stand.

On May 5, we joined more than a dozen major conservation groups in urging the Department of Interior to halt drilling plans in the biologically rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas, off the coast of Arctic Alaska.

These sensitive Arctic waters are the next frontier for off-shore drilling, and they are scheduled to be opened to exploratory drilling this summer.

We’re also fighting Arctic oil exploration in court, alongside other heavy-hitters in the environmental community. And we’re fighting to make these kinds of risky practices obsolete by standing on the frontlines to push Congress and the Obama Administration for clean energy solutions that will lessen America’s dependence on oil.

Why oil spills could be worse in Arctic waters

The Alaskan coast is one place where recovery from a catastrophe like the one in the Gulf would present a worst possible scenario.

But even with the Gulf Coast oil slick continuing to grow, drilling ships will steam towards the ecologically rich Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer, intent on conducting exploratory drilling similar to the kind that led to the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf.

Beaufort and Chukchi SeaMuch like the Gulf of Mexico, whose warm waters are full of whales, birds, turtles, and fish, the Arctic seas teem with life. Offshore, the waters are rich with salmon and cod, and are home to endangered humpback and fin whales, as well as more than 3,000 beluga whales.

The coastlines along these seas are no less populated with wild creatures. Polar bears, seals, and walruses call these coastal areas home, and hundreds of thousands of birds make their nests along the lagoons of the barrier islands, preparing for the long flight down the continent when winter approaches again.

Polar bear.Native cultures and communities have also thrived along the Arctic coast for thousands of years.

What would happen to these magnificent landscapes and the people that depend on them if a Gulf-size catastrophe — or worse — happened in the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas?

The lack of infrastructure along the coast is a major concern. Without the fleet of Coast Guard vessels like in the Gulf, how quickly would a major spill be contained? Could even a minor spill be contained before it started fouling the beaches and lagoons that the wildlife depend on?

Alaska’s Prince William Sound is still recovering from the Exxon-Valdez spill that occurred more than 20 years ago. A spill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Sea could be even worse in terms of the damage to already fragile ecosystems and species of marine and land animals alike.

There is also the issue of safety onboard a rig. The nearest Coast Guard facility is hundreds of miles away from the proposed Chukchi Sea drill-site — and even farther from the Beaufort Sea. Summer water temperatures in the Arctic Ocean rarely go over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and those exposed to this water have just a few short minutes before hypothermia sets in.

Before drill ships reach Arctic waters, please join us in telling the Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to stop to prevent new drilling off the Alaska coast.

Walrus and pup.
Polar bear.