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14 Reasons Why We Must Never Drill in the Arctic

14 Reasons Why We Must Never Drill in the Arctic

This originally appeared as Frozen Treasure: Defending the Arctic in a feature by Earthjustice.

The Arctic is a thriving, diverse landscape filled with life. It is home to iconic species including seals, walruses, polar bears and bowhead whales. It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities which have depended for millennia on the ocean for their way of life.

A ringed seal is on the lookout for polar bears as it surfaces. Photo credit: PAUL NICKLEN / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Today, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people. There is currently no offshore oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean. And for the sake of our warming world and irreplaceable species, there should never be.

1. Our fight to protect America’s Arctic is stronger than ever as Shell Oil gears up to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer, even though there is no effective way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s icy waters.

An alpha male Arctic wolf bounds across the ice floes. Photo credit: JIM BRANDENBURG / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Oil spills know no boundaries, making it especially important to protect communities, wildlife and our planet from the risky drilling that is set to occur in this fragile ecosystem.

Operating in extreme conditions, oil drilling and exploration in America’s Arctic Ocean places whales, seals and countless other species in danger.

2. America’s Arctic Ocean is ground zero for climate change. Drilling in the Arctic will not only promote continued reliance on fossil fuels, but it will also release black carbon pollution directly onto Arctic ice, accelerating the melting of ice so many animals depend on for giving birth, raising their young, feeding, hunting and avoiding predators. Arctic Ocean oil development undermines the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change during this crucial time of transitioning our country to a cleaner energy future.

Unable to find sea ice, approximately 35,000 walruses "haul out" on the northwest coast of Alaska, near the Inupiat village of Point Lay, on Sept. 27, 2014. Photo credit: COREY ACCARDO / NOAA

The science is clear—drilling in the Arctic Ocean is incompatible with meeting our climate goals. Drilling for oil in the Arctic will only make it harder to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

3. The melting of Arctic sea ice is a powerful indicator of the rapid warming already occurring throughout the Arctic and is creating calamitous consequences for Chukchi Sea walruses. The species depends on sea ice to raise its young, feed, and avoid predators. With dwindling amounts of sea ice, walruses have been forced onto coastal areas in large numbers where food is scarce and conditions are dangerous.

A young walrus returning from feeding on clams. Photo credit: PAUL NICKLEN / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

In a previously unseen phenomenon, approximately 35,000 walruses crowded together on the U.S. Arctic coast in September 2014. That year, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenging a rule permitting oil companies like Shell Oil to harm Pacific walruses during Arctic Ocean oil drilling in crucial walrus feeding areas.

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4. Most of our planet’s Pacific walrus use the Chukchi during the summer months. When forced onto coastal "haul out" areas, walruses must swim distances over 100 miles to reach Chukchi feeding grounds to find the clams and other bottom-dwelling species they need to survive. Walruses do not have the ability to swim indefinitely and are under great stress when forced to swim from coastal resting areas, without sea ice to rest on.

A bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus. Photo credit: FLIP NICKLIN / MINDEN PICTURES

With dwindling sea ice, access to food sources in the Arctic is growing scarcer. And exploring for oil will bring deafening seismic blasts, which carry through the water for hundreds of miles, and other disturbances that can cause herds to move away from foraging areas and even stampede from coastal haul outs, in the process trampling and killing their young and smaller walruses.

5. Endangered bowhead whales thrive in narrow shelf waters. They live near the edge of the moving ice pack, as it drops south in the winter and recedes north in the summer, for the bulk of the year, using their large skulls to break through thick ice when needed.

Erik Grafe in Denali National Park & Preserve. Photo credit: PHOTOS PROVIDED BY ERIK GRAFE

Shell’s planned drilling operations are directly in the whales' summer and fall migration path to rich feeding grounds the whales need to survive. The government admits that it does not know all the areas important to bowheads but evidence suggests several are near potential drilling sites.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the historic worldwide abundance of bowhead whales prior to commercial exploitation was estimated at about 30,000–50,000, but was driven down to about 3,000 animals by the 1920s. The current population of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales is now thought to number between 10,000 and 16,000 individuals.

Shell's drilling and ice-breaking could harass more than 1,000 bowheads, including sensitive mothers and calves. The major noise and activity from drilling, along with related explosive seismic testing, can drive whales away from areas of food and rest.

6. Earthjustice attorney and Alaska resident Erik Grafe has been at the forefront of protecting the Arctic’s iconic waters, wildlife and communities since 2007. In addition to the dangers of oil spills in key migration and feeding areas, he explains that drilling in the Arctic will accelerate climate change effects already wreaking havoc on wildlife and communities in the region and having effects far beyond the Arctic.

A male polar bear has its portrait taken by a camera trap. Photo credit: PAUL NICKLEN / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

"As the international scientific community and President Obama recognize, we cannot develop the vast majority of already known oil reserves, let alone extreme Arctic Ocean oil, if we are to avoid the worst climate change consequences," says Grafe.

7.  The Chukchi Sea’s oil and gas Lease Sale 193, which leased millions of acres of the pristine Sea’s outer continental shelf, has already been declared illegal twice by the courts—first in 2010 and then in 2014—thanks to Earthjustice litigation.

Drilling rigs, like the ones pictured here off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, would spell disaster in the Arctic where remoteness and ice contribute to difficulties cleaning up a spill. Putting them in the Arctic would be a disaster. Photo credit: ANITA RITENOUR

Still, the Department of the Interior re-considered and re-affirmed the sale in late March of this year. The move opened the gate for risky oil drilling in America’s Arctic, home to one-tenth of the world’s polar bear population—and the entire U.S. population of the species.

On June 1, 2015, a coalition of 12 environmental and Alaska Native groups announced their intent to bring a new challenge to the controversial Bush-era Lease Sale. Earthjustice is representing Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity,Friends of the Earth, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center,Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and World Wildlife Fund in the legal challenge.

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8. Shell plans to drill in areas identified as important habitat for many mammals, including the region around Hanna Shoal, the extraordinarily biologically rich feeding area favored by walruses. Shell will bring industrial devices such as aircraft, drilling rigs, ice-breakers and support vessels into this species-rich environment.

A seal and pup covered with oil, during the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. Photo credit: NATALIE B. FOBES / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Walrus, whales, several types of ice-dependent seals, and waterfowl, seabirds, and shorebirds are all put directly in harm’s way by oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

9. Did you know there is a 75 percent chance of a major spill in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea if oil and gas leases are developed?The government does.

The drilling unit Kulluk, part of Shell's 2012 attempt to drill in the Arctic Ocean, grounded on the shore of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm. The Kulluk was so badly damaged, it was eventually scrapped. Photo credit: PA3 JON KLINGENBERG / COAST GUARD

Still, our nation’s government continues to move toward allowing drilling.

And even without a spill, oil and gas drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea will cause widespread harm and 100 percent chance of disruption to our climate.

Oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean will only further stress the region, and it is entirely incompatible with the urgent need to limit climate change.

10. WHAT FAILURE LOOKS LIKE: Shell Oil was investigated and fined after multiple missteps and close calls during its efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012. Government regulators severely criticized Shell Oil for failing to maintain effective oversight of its contractors.

Yet the Interior Department is giving Shell the keys to our pristine waters.

Hundreds of "kayaktivists" swarm Shell Oil's drilling rig Polar Pioneer, as it arrives in Elliot Bay at the Port of Seattle on May 15, 2015. Photo credit: JOSHUA TRUJILLO / SEATTLEPI.COM

Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman of the Northwest regional office (left), with Chris Wilkes, executive director of Earthjustice client Puget Soundkeeper. Goldman is leading the Port of Seattle legal fight. Photo credit: CHRIS JORDAN-BLOCH / EARTHJUSTICE

“Your child, my grandchild and the unborn grandchild of our grandchildren are going to live with what we do to this society,” said Seattle resident Jack Smith on March 24, 2015, during a Port commissioners meeting. Photo credit: JOE NICHOLSON FOR EARTHJUSTICE

A rally on April 26, 2015, at Seattle's waterfront in opposition to the Port's lease to Shell's Arctic drilling fleet drew hundreds of impassioned supporters. Photo credit: CHRIS JORDAN-BLOCH / EARTHJUSTICE

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11. WORK TO DEFEND THE ARCTIC IS ALSO UNDERWAY IN WASHINGTON STATE. Earthjustice is working to protect Seattle’s waters from a lease that would allow Shell’s Arctic drill ships to be housed at the city's port, in violation of the State Environmental Policy Act, its own long-range plans and the Shoreline Management Act. Earthjustice is representing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and Seattle Audubon Society in the legal fight to vacate the lease.

Kittiwakes are one of many migratory bird species found in the Arctic region. The birds spend most of their time at sea, nesting in steep cliffs. Photo credit: RALPH LEE HOPKINS / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

The Port of Seattle neglected to host public proceedings or an environmental review before authorizing its terminal’s use. Since the lease became known publicly, the groups and local residents have pressed hard on the port to rescind the lease, invest in sustainable jobs that reflect the community’s values, and block the drilling feet from calling Seattle home.

12. On May 11, 2015, the Department of the Interior approved Shell’s drilling plans to begin oil exploration this summer in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea.

In May, the Hands Across the Sand event in Anchorage brought together Alaska residents from all across the state, calling for protection of the oceans. Photo credit: PHOTOS BY EARL KINGIK, POINT HOPE, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE LIAISON

The summer months are vital to animal populations, as wildlife and migratory birds descend upon the Arctic to raise their young.

On June 2, an alliance of environmental and Alaska-based community groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit to challenge the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s approval of Shell’s oil exploration plan. Earthjustice is representing Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth,National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society in the lawsuit.

The grandchildren of Earl Kingik, an Inupiat hunter and fisherman, learn how to set net to catch fish at Point Hope, Alaska. Photo credit: PHOTOS BY EARL KINGIK, POINT HOPE, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE LIAISON

13. Alaska Native communities along the Chukchi Sea practice a subsistence way of life and have depended and thrived on the resources of this sea for their cultural and nutritional well-being for generations.

Today, they are on the frontlines of the consequences of climate change impacts and the risks of oil development.

Reaching for the aurora borealis in the Arctic Circle. Photo credit: MIKE THEISS / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

14. The Arctic is ground zero for climate change, and offshore drilling will only intensify the problem, placing additional stress on the Arctic’s animals which rely on its delicate ecosystem to survive. Let’s agree to safeguard the Arctic from the high risk of oil spills—and the planet from the irreversible damage that will arise from Arctic Ocean drilling.

We’re working to protect Seattle’s local waters, the Arctic Ocean, and our world from reckless actions that will wreak havoc on wildlife and our climate.

The fight continues—will you join us?

Special thanks to Earl Kingik, Point Hope, Alaska Wilderness League Liaison, for generously providing several photos.


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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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