Obama Administration Halts Arctic Ocean Drilling

May 27, 2010

The Wilderness Society today lauded the Obama administration’s announcement that it will postpone Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the coast of Alaska until at least 2011. The administration also announced a number of other strong steps to protect off-shore resources to prevent another disaster like that in the Gulf.

“The decision to halt drilling is a victory for the Arctic ocean, for coastal ecosystems, and for the native communities and wildlife that depend on them ,” said The Wilderness Society President, William H. Meadows. “We need to know what happened in the Gulf to cause the disaster, so that a similar catastrophe doesn’t befall our Arctic waters.”

“Secretary Salazar recently took necessary steps to better regulate on-shore oil and gas activities on federal lands, and his actions today show a similar commitment to better protecting our off-shore resources,” added Meadows. “The federal agencies that are entrusted with the management of our lands and waters need to call the shots, not the oil and gas companies. Today we’re one step closer to that happening.”

The Wilderness Society and other environmental groups had called for the Department of Interior to reconsider the environmental impact and safety of drilling in the Arctic Ocean by Royal Dutch Shell.

“The icy, treacherous waters of the Arctic Ocean would make cleaning up an oil spill or leak far more difficult,” said Meadows. “Imagine adding freezing weather, long, dark nights, and sea ice to the current cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, and you can see how a spill in the Arctic Ocean would be even more of a catastrophe.”

The Arctic Ocean is also home to many fish and wildlife species. Thousands of polar bears and seals live along the coastline near the Chukchi Sea, along with nearly the entire Pacific population of walruses. More than 3,000 beluga whales, along with endangered species like bowhead, finback, and humpback whales spend their summers in the Chukchi Sea, feeding on the plankton that is prevalent in the icy waters.

“The Native Alaskan communities near the Arctic Ocean depend on these species for their way of life – a way of life that has sustained their culture for thousands of years,” said Meadows. “An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could destroy those communities, and their culture, forever.”