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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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