Obama’s offshore drilling decision: Why we’re concerned for Arctic waters

Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.

The Obama Administration's Dec. 1 announcement to rescind its Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) drilling plans for the Atlantic seaboard and the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico near Florida was a bittersweet pill for those of us working to protect the Arctic Ocean and its coastline from oil spills and development.

The announced reprieve for sensitive coastal areas in the east is much needed but the news would be happier if the administration had not also signaled that the oil and gas industry may still obtain drilling access to the remarkably fragile, pristine, and wildlife-rich waters of the Arctic Ocean, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

These waters are plied by humpback and endangered bowhead whales, are critical habitat for polar bears which are perilously threatened by global warming, and they are home to seals, walruses, salmon and cod. Within the coastal lagoons of the Arctic Refuge and other areas, sea birds nest and breed, migrating there from as far away as South America. And Alaska Natives who live on the ocean’s coastline rely on its resources for a substantial portion of their diet and to maintain cultural traditions.

Polar bear.A major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could be catastrophic. That’s why The Wilderness Society — along with other conservation organizations as well as many Alaska Natives — have worked to stop leasing and development in these waters where so little is known about the ecosystem and where icy conditions make it impossible to clean up spilled oil thoroughly.

More must be learned about the Arctic Ocean. More must be done to protect the fish and wildlife and Native populations that depend on it. The Wilderness Society will continue to help ensure that oil and gas development does not despoil this incredible region.

Read more about our position in President Bill Meadow’s Houston Chronicle op-ed here.

Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.
Polar bear.