Suit Filed Over Arctic Oil Drilling in Alaska
This week, the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for blasting loopholes the size of polar bears and Pacific walrus in the Marine Mammal Protection Act when it comes to oil drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.
When Kempthorne announced May 15 that the polar bear had been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, he also infamously argued that the bears merited no new protections, since they were already shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Interior then exempted polar bears from both Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act standards that would bar oil companies from harassing or harming bears -- specifically, giving free rein to oil companies to conduct business worse than usual in the Chukchi Sea for the next five years.
Among the most unspoiled areas in Alaska's Arctic, the Chukchi Sea is home to most of the world's Pacific walrus and one of only two U.S. polar bear populations. In February, Interior auctioned off 2.7 million acres of the sea to oil companies, with more lease sales planned in 2010 and 2012. Under the administration's new rules, oil companies in the sea have free access to compromise polar bear and walrus habitat with new offshore oil rigs, sonic blasts, hundreds of miles of roads, increased disruptive ship and aircraft activity, and a 40-percent chance of an oil spill. All that in addition to creating more of the greenhouse gas emissions that are melting the animals' sea-ice habitat in the first place.
Reuters, July 9, 2008
Groups to sue over oil impacts to polar bears
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Two environmental groups filed notice on Monday that they plan to sue the federal government for not imposing new regulations on oil development in Alaska's Arctic waters as part of offering protective status to polar bears.
Last month, polar bears were listed as threatened, a protective status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also enacted a rule precluding oil operators from any new impediments other than those already required by Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment said the Interior Department is violating the Endangered Species Act by giving oil companies exploring the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas a pass from additional regulation.
Since the rapidly warming Arctic climate, not oil development, is the cause of the ice-dependent polar bears' woes, oil explorers should not face additional regulatory hurdles, according to Kempthorne.
"The only thing keeping pace with the drastic melting of the Arctic sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of the Interior is rushing to sell off polar bear habitat for fossil fuel development," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement.
The environmental groups, in their 60-day notice of their intent to sue, said the Interior Department must take steps to curb oil development's direct impacts nonetheless.
As offshore development expands, polar bears are at risk from noise and other disturbances caused by vessels, aircraft and drilling platforms, the deafening blasts of seismic tests and multiple oil and chemical spills, the groups said.
The center and Pacific Environment are two of the three groups that filed the original petition and lawsuit that prompted the threatened listing for the polar bear.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates polar bears, said he had not yet seen Monday's notice and could not comment specifically on it.
"In the finding for the Endangered Species listing, oil and gas development was not seen as one of the critical factors threatening the polar bear," said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the service in Alaska.
Alaska's federally managed outer continental shelf, long considered too remote and costly to drill, is emerging as a hot prospect for new oil and gas exploration.
A February lease sale for the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska drew a record $2.66 billion in high bids, with $2.1 billion of bids coming from Royal Dutch Shell Plc.
BP, meanwhile, is moving to develop its Liberty prospect in the Beaufort into what would be the first producing Alaska oil field located entirely in federal waters.