Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse for the polar bear, Big Oil is moving into its neighborhood.
On Feb. 6, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) put almost 30 million acres of prime Alaskan habitat on the auction block for oil and gas drilling. The decision comes only one month after the Interior Department delayed a landmark ruling on whether to include the marine mammal on its endangered species list, a move that would have afforded it federal protections.
Environmental groups and indigenous communities are accusing the Bush administration of using the lag as an opportunity to delve out huge swaths of polar bear habitat to the highest bidder, with potentially devastating consequences.
Eric Jorgensen, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm based in Oakland, Calif., is representing plaintiffs in a suit against the MMS alleging that its environmental impact study – required prior to the habitat lease – failed to consider the potential combined effects of oil drilling and global warming on the region.
A third suit, spearheaded by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), goes a step further, claiming that MMS scientists were aware of such information, but deliberately concealed it.
“If the true impacts of oil development in the Chukchi Sea were made public and properly analyzed, the area would be protected, not opened up for oil development,” says Chuck Clusen, a senior policy analyst at the NRDC.
Jorgensen agrees. “The Bush administration is rushing ahead to give oil companies as much of the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea as it can,” he says, “without disclosing the full impact of oil and gas activities on the people and wildlife that depend on this fragile and rapidly changing ocean.”
The polar bear, the world’s largest land carnivore, finds one-fifth of its global habitat in the Chukchi and adjacent Beaufort Seas. The U.S. Geological Survey conservatively estimates the bear’s population will decline by two-thirds before 2050.
The lease area, or MMS “Sale 193,” also encompasses core habitat for the Pacific walrus and countless other species, and is a migratory route for the endangered bowhead whale, intimately tied to the native Inupiat tribe’s way of life.
“The Chukchi Sea is our garden,” says Jack Schaefer, tribal council president for the Native Village of Point Hope, one of the communities on Alaska’s North Slope. “We’ve hunted and fished in the ocean for thousands of years.”
That way of life, however, is threatened by America’s insatiable thirst for oil. According to MMS Director Randall Luthi, “Our nation’s demand for energy is increasing.” Addressing a crowd of industry executives as he opened bidding for the Chukchi on Feb. 6, he warned, “We can either close the gap with domestic production or increase our reliance on foreign sources. This sale represents an opportunity to lessen that gap.”
The MMS applauded the record bids for the lease of Alaska’s assets, bringing in almost $2.7 billion from oil and gas companies eager to tap the estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lie beneath the Chukchi. The big winner was Royal Dutch Shell, which paid more than $2.1 billion to stake its claim on 2,758,403 carefully selected acres.
The groups suing the MMS – including the Native Village of Point Hope, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, among several others – say the bids should have been suspended until after a ruling on the polar bear’s status.
After more than a year of accepting public and expert comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – also a part of the Interior Department– was facing a legal deadline to rule on the polar bears’ endangered status by Jan. 9. That decision, however, was delayed. A USFWS spokesperson says the delay resulted from the “huge volume” of public comments submitted on the issue.
It’s not only the public that is showing interest. On Jan. 30, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the fate of polar bears. While much of the testimony surrounded inconclusive polar bear population data and ongoing debates about climate change, all sides agreed that there is a dearth of knowledge. It is unknown how many fish and bird species rely upon the Chukchi Sea for their survival, or how those species would respond to the booms of exploration and increased drilling.
It’s also unknown whether the most advanced technologies available would be capable of protecting an already-threatened ecosystem from the potentially devastating effects of a massive oil spill. Shockingly, MMS’ own data predicts the likelihood of such a spill occurring to be within a range of 33 percent to 51 percent.
“The technology to effectively contain and clean up oil spills does not currently exist,” Margaret Williams, director of the World Wildlife Federation’s Bering Sea Program, told the Senate panel, “so this oil lease is a disaster waiting to happen.”