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Lawsuit Filed to Protect Struggling Walruses from Arctic Oil Drilling
Threats to walruses in the Arctic are in the spotlight again, as six environmental and conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) challenging a rule that would allow oil companies to begin drilling in key walrus feeding areas in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea by next year. Shell has already announced its intention to do so.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council. According to the plaintiffs, oil operations could force walruses out of their feeding areas, trigger stampedes, harm them with loud seismic blasts and put them at risk from the impacts of catastrophic oil spills which would be difficult to clean up in Arctic conditions.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to do a much better job of protecting walrus mothers and calves struggling to survive in the dramatically changing Chukchi Sea,” said Earthjustice Attorney Erik Grafe. “Today’s challenge seeks to protect walruses from suffering potential serious harm and harassment at the hands of companies like Shell Oil, which crashed and burned during its Arctic Ocean drilling efforts in 2012. Walruses are already under tremendous stress from climate change—their sea ice home is literally melting away. Without adequate analysis, the challenged rules would add to walruses’ woes by allowing drilling and risking oil spills in the areas most important for food and resting. What’s more, drilling would accelerate the climate change already causing so much trouble for walruses.”
Grafe is referring to the stress already on walruses in the region as the ice from which they hunt and on which they raise their young has been melting due to climate change. The ice edge has receded north into water to deep for the walruses to fish in. This has forced the animals onshore where they have gathered in huge masses on beaches on both flanks of the sea in Alaska and Russia. About 35,000 walruses came ashore in Alaska a month ago, with another 10,000 finding solid ground in Russia, as September sea ice extent shrunk to its sixth-lowest extent since satellite measurements began.
The lawsuit has much wider implications than just protecting the habitats of some big, beautiful animals.
“Walruses are the Arctic’s canary in a coal mine,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director for Alaska Wilderness League. “We can’t ignore the signs and impacts of climate change in the Arctic. The Interior Department must better protect walruses and the fragile Arctic Ocean with its disappearing shoreline from harm by big oil companies like Shell. Adding drilling into this already dangerous mix is reckless and irresponsible.”
Photo credit: Shutterstock
"The danger to walrus is one more in a long list of serious risks posed by drilling in the Arctic Ocean," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska program director for the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. "We should not sacrifice the Arctic's amazing wildlife, the subsistence culture that depends on it, or our climate to dirty drilling. The effects on walrus and other wildlife will only worsen if we don't begin keeping dirty fuels in the ground."
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Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.
AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.
"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."
Big Oil is now using its political power to try and criminalize protests of oil & gas infrastructure.— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 19, 2019
"This legislation has potential to punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment."https://t.co/bmiHjONEhy
The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.
"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.
As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."
"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."
Many of the state bills restricting the right to protest have been "drafted by companies and passed through groups like ALEC, the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people." @greenpeaceusa https://t.co/ZxpTjWdrwT— Stand Up To ALEC (@StandUpToALEC) May 6, 2019
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.