For Immediate Release, July 8, 2008
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232 x 304
Rebecca Noblin, Pacific Environment, (907) 277-1029
Lawsuit Filed to Protect Polar Bears and Pacific Walrus
From Oil Drilling in Chukchi Sea
Rule Exempting Oil Industry Activities
Mammal Protection Act Challenged
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Today two conservation groups filed suit against Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne for issuing regulations that would allow unlimited harassment of polar bears and Pacific walrus by oil companies operating in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. Harassment of polar bears and walrus is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, yet the new regulations issued last month exempt oil companies operating in the Chukchi Sea from these restrictions for a period of five years.
“These regulations waiving the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act indicate the Department of the Interior is far more concerned with protecting oil-company profits than polar bears,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If polar bears and Pacific walrus are to survive in the face of global warming, we simply cannot allow oil development in the Chukchi Sea.”
The Chukchi Sea is the least touched by industrial development of any area of Alaska's Arctic. The area is home to most of the world's Pacific walrus as well as one of only two polar bear populations in the United States. Offshore oil development directly harms polar bears and Pacific walrus in numerous ways, including disturbance by vessels, aircraft, and drilling platforms, impacts on walrus and the seals that bears prey upon from seismic surveys, and the risk of oil spills. There are no proven technologies for cleaning up an oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic. A large spill, estimated by the Department of the Interior as having a 40-percent chance of occurring as a result of proposed development in the Chukchi Sea, would be catastrophic for polar bears and Pacific walrus.
“The Chukchi Sea should be protected as critical habitat for polar bears and Pacific walrus, not opened up for oil exploration,” said Whit Sheard, Alaska program director of Pacific Environment. “The risks from offshore oil development to the polar bear, the marine environment, and Arctic communities are simply too great.”
The regulations that are the subject of today’s lawsuit would allow oil companies to saturate the ocean with sonic blasts from four simultaneously operating survey ships each summer, deploy and operate three offshore drill rigs a year, build hundreds of miles of roads and run seismic trucks through polar bear denning areas along the coast, and simultaneously operate over two dozen ships and aircraft — including highly disruptive ice-breakers — 24 hours a day in sensitive areas of the Chukchi Sea and adjacent coast.
In February 2008 the Department of the Interior offered leases on approximately 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea. Approximately 2.7 million acres were bid on by oil companies, and most of these leases have now been issued. Additional lease sales in the Chukchi Sea are scheduled for 2010 and 2012.
“If we had a rational energy policy, the Chukchi Sea would never have been opened for leasing in the first place,” said Cummings. “Drilling in the Arctic won’t bring us any closer to energy independence, but it will bring us a lot closer to the extinction of the polar bear.”
In addition to direct impacts on polar bears and Pacific walrus, offshore oil development in the Chukchi Sea will also result in millions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions from the exploration and development of the oilfields themselves, while the oil and gas extracted, once burned, will result in billions of tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions.
Polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act on May 15, 2008. Secretary Kempthorne stated that no additional protection for the polar bear was necessary under the Endangered Species Act as the Marine Mammal Protection Act provided adequate protection. The Interior Department consequently promulgated a special rule exempting polar bears from the “take” prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act. The regulation challenged in today’s lawsuit exempts oil companies operating in the Chukchi Sea from the “take” prohibitions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well.
The Polar Bear Seas Protection Act (H.R. 6057), introduced by Congressmen Jay Inlsee and Maurice Hinchey in the House, and Senator John Kerry’s similar bill in the Senate (S. 2568), would prohibit further offshore oil-industry activities in the Chukchi Sea until Arctic oil-spill response technology is proven and polar bear critical habitat is designated.