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For Immediate Release, August 18, 2011

Contact: Rebecca Noblin (907) 350-4822

As Imperiled Walruses Are Forced to Shore by Melting Ice,
Obama Administration Moves Forward With Dangerous Arctic Drilling Plan  

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Obama administration today approved a Bush-era plan to open the Chukchi Sea off Alaska to offshore oil drilling without determining how it will affect Arctic wildlife. At the same time, thousands of Pacific walruses have congregated on Alaska’s Chukchi shore as the sea ice they normally rely upon has disappeared. The migration of the walruses onshore in Alaska is reflective of the rapidly changing conditions of the Arctic caused by global warming.

“It’s a painful irony that on the very day the Interior Department says no additional information is needed to understand the impacts of drilling on Arctic wildlife, distressed walruses in the Chukchi Sea were seen hauling themselves onto shore because there’s no sea ice where they need it,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for Center for Biological Diversity. “The Arctic is reeling from climate change, but the Obama administration has a head-in-the-sand approach to looking at the impacts of oil drilling in the region.”

Today’s supplemental environmental impact statement was produced by the Department of the Interior under court order following a successful lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies. The previous environmental review, done by the Bush administration in late 2007, was struck down by a court for failing to address data gaps related to the Chukchi Sea. The new review rejects the notion that critical data gaps, including gaps in knowledge about the effects on wildlife, must be filled before moving forward with drilling in the Arctic.

“The new environmental impact statement shows that despite ocean-sized data gaps regarding the biology of the Chukchi Sea and the hazards of oil and gas development there, the Obama administration would rather risk the Arctic Ocean than risk its relationship with oil companies,” said Noblin.

Among the most at-risk species in the Chukchi is the Pacific walrus. This week an estimated 8,000 walruses in two large herds were discovered hauled out on beaches of the Chukchi Sea near Point Lay, Alaska, because the sea ice they need for resting is gone. Young walruses that are forced to come ashore face greater risks because they are vulnerable to being trampled to death in stampedes and attacked by predators. In 2009, 131 young walruses were crushed to death in stampedes along Alaska’s shores near Icy Cape. Previously unprecedented, haul-outs are becoming a common occurrence on the Alaskan coast as sea ice disappears; a herd of 10,000 to 20,000 walruses came ashore in Alaska last summer.

These walrus haul-outs coincide with recent announcements from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that July sea-ice extent reached a record low and that sea-ice extent in August is only slightly higher than record-low levels in 2007.

Due to threats from sea-ice loss, the Center petitioned to protect the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. In February, the Interior Department agreed that the walrus is threatened by global warming but that it will have to wait for the law’s protections. Meanwhile, the walrus faces ever-growing threats from the Obama administration’s inaction on global warming and its willingness to open Alaska’s waters to dangerous drilling.

“If the Obama administration had a rational energy policy that actually addressed the threat of global warming, it wouldn’t be green-lighting risky oil development in the Arctic, which not only places a sensitive ecosystem at risk but will also further our addiction to fossil fuels,” said Noblin.

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