ARCTIC OIL DEVELOPMENT
Alaska’s north coast and ocean waters are teeming with species found in few other places, and many of them are now under threat. The Western Arctic Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provide critical denning areas for polar bears, support vast caribou herds and are essential nesting grounds for thousands of bird species, including threatened eiders and yellow-billed loons. The sea ice of the Arctic Ocean is hunting and denning habitat for polar bears and a foraging platform for Pacific walrus and numerous Arctic ice seal species. Under the sea ice, endangered bowhead whales and other whale species live off the biological richness of the Arctic Ocean.
Nearly all Arctic species are at risk from global warming. But that’s not the only problem: In a drastically changing environment, Arctic species must now contend with dirty, industrial fossil fuel development.
Offshore Oil Development
Over the last half-decade, the Center and allies have been very successful in blocking offshore oil development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas through a series of lawsuits.
In February 2013, Shell Oil announced today that it wouldn’t drill for oil in the Arctic off Alaska that year. The oil giant had planned to drill several exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Several setbacks, including the grounding of its Kulluk drilling rig, failure of its oil spill response containment dome and the Coast Guard’s discovery of numerous safety violations on its Noble Discoverer drilling rig, prompted Shell to delay its plans. In April ConocoPhillips also announced it would halt drilling plans; it had been going to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea in 2014. Statoil, another company with leases in the Alaskan Arctic, put its drilling plans on hold too.
Earlier, in 2009, a federal court had thrown out a Bush-era five-year plan for offshore development because it ignored the Arctic’s environmental sensitivity; in 2010 we won a court order stopping drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea due to poor environmental review; and in 2011 we successfully challenged Shell’s air permits. As a result, Shell Oil, slated to drill in the Arctic every year since 2007, had not been granted permission to stick its drills in the water — until August 2012. However, Shell’s failure to demonstrate it could contain an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean forced it to abandon, for that year, its controversial drilling plans.
And in the wake of the BP Gulf disaster, we put pressure on the government to reject BP’s plans to drill the world’s longest horizontal well in the Arctic Ocean via a project it dubbed “Liberty.” Thanks in large part to our pressure, BP has postponed Liberty. Also in the wake of the BP disaster, we filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for authorizing an inadequate oil-spill response plan for Alaska, including rubberstamping the use of toxic oil dispersants harmful to wildlife. The government agencies heeded the warning and have begun the necessary environmental review.
But the struggle to save the Arctic Ocean is far from over. The Center and our allies continue to battle it out in court, while at the same time pressing for a permanent halt on offshore drilling in all U.S. waters, starting in Alaska.
Oil Development on Land
We’ve also been working to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 2001, when we forced the Bush administration to release information about the impacts of Arctic Refuge oil drilling on polar bears. Lobbyists and government agencies continue to push for destructive drilling. The Obama administration is in the process of comprehensive planning for the Arctic Refuge, and we’re working to secure full wilderness protection for the entire refuge, including the biologically rich coastal plain.
While the Arctic Refuge has been spared from oil-industry assaults so far, the sensitive habitats and wilderness-quality lands of the Western Arctic Reserve — also, significantly, called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — haven't been so lucky. The largest unprotected wilderness in the United States, made up of more than 23 million largely untouched acres — including Teshekpuk Lake, one of the country’s most important wetlands — the reserve is home to numerous imperiled species, including spectacled and Steller's eiders, yellow-billed loons and polar bears. Since more than a decade ago, more than half of the reserve has been opened to oil and gas leasing.
In 2013 the Center ued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers challenging the approval of an oil-industry proposal to build the first-ever drilling site inside the Reserve and the first road into this vast roadless area. The lawsuit targeted the agency’s OK for a destructive expansion of oil development in Alaska's Colville River Delta, which would bring roads into the largest, most biologically rich river delta in America’s Arctic. The Colville Delta provides internationally significant habitat for hundreds of thousands of water birds, which migrate from four continents to spend their summers in the Arctic.
The Center started fighting for the Western Arctic Reserve long before 2013. In 2006, we and our partners won a lawsuit that successfully blocked leasing plans in the Teshekpuk Lake region; but the administration is once again seeking to expand drilling in the Reserve. In late 2011 the Army Corps of Engineers flip-flopped on a prior decision and approved ConocoPhillips’ plans to build a road to access drilling sites in the rich and diverse Colville River Delta. The Center will continue to fight industrial development in the reserve through political pressure and possibly litigation.
Besides directly challenging industry plans and projects, the Center protects imperiled Arctic species from oil and gas development. In 2008, a Center petition and lawsuit led to the listing of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. And in 2010, again thanks to a Center lawsuit, the bears received more than 187,000 square miles of designated critical habitat, much of it in areas slated for oil development. The Center is currently in court defending the bear’s critical habitat from attacks by the state of Alaska and the oil industry.
In 2006 and 2008 the Center gained Endangered Species Act protection for the North Pacific right whale and forced the federal government to set aside critical habitat for this highly endangered mammal. Due to continuous pressure from the Center and allies, in 2010 the federal government announced a halt to drilling in the right whale’s Bering Sea habitat.
We’re currently working to gain Endangered Species Act protection for Pacific walruses, ribbon seals, bearded seals and ringed seals — all of which face threats from both global warming and offshore oil and gas development. After a Center lawsuit challenging the failure to protect ribbon seals, the National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to reconsider and make a new finding by December 2012. In 2010 bearded and ringed seals were proposed for listing, and a final rule is due in the fall of 2012. Pacific walrus were listed as warranted but precluded in 2011; as a result of a Center settlement, the government must decide whether to protect Pacific walruses by 2017.