Natives, Conservationists Sue to Block Chukchi Sea Oil Leasing

JUNEAU, Alaska, February 1, 2008 (ENS) – A coalition of Alaska natives and conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday challenging oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, which lies above the Arctic Circle between Alaska and Russia.

Thirty million acres of polar bear, walrus, and whale habitat in the Chukchi Sea are scheduled to be opened to oil and gas companies on February 6, when the U.S. Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, MMS, plans to hold bidding for drilling leases.

The lawsuit alleges that in making its decision to hold the lease sale, MMS did not adequately weigh the impacts that oil and gas activities would have on wildlife like polar bears, or on native villages along Alaska’s North Slope.

Map showing the Chukchi Sea, which
takes its name from the Chukchi
people who live along its Russian
shores subsisting on fishing and
hunting. (Map by Norman Einstein)

Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, said Friday, “Energy production can occur while maintaining strong polar bear protections.”

A coalition made up of the Native Village of Point Hope, the City of Point Hope, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, and REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) represent the Native Alaska plaintiffs in the case.

The plaintiff conservation groups include the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

“The MMS has admitted a substantial likelihood of oil spills in the Chukchi Sea,” said Kristen Miller, legislative director for Alaska Wilderness League. “There is no proven method to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s broken sea ice, or even to reliably clean up a spill in open water.”

“The Chukchi Sea is our garden. We’ve hunted and fished in the ocean for thousands of years,” said Jack Schaefer, president of the tribal council of the Native Village of Point Hope. “The ocean is what our history and culture is based on. One oil spill could destroy our way of life.”

Luthi counters that, “For the Chukchi Sea sale, exploration and initial development will occur only with the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Energy exploration activities will only take place in open water — at least 25 miles from shore.”

Randall Luthi is director
of the U.S. Minerals
Management Service
(Photo courtesy

“Although a spill is unlikely, MMS recognizes the potential for a spill and requires industry to have containment and recovery equipment on standby,” Luthi said.

“Our record is good,” Luthi says, pointing to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study finding that since 1982, less than .001 percent of the oil produced in U.S. waters has spilled.

Oil production in the Chukchi Sea “realistically is 10-15 years in the future,” Luthi said, “and will not occur without many environmental reviews, public commentary, and application of environmental protections.”

But in their lawsuit, the natives and conservationists argue that in addition to the risk of spills, the administration has not fully addressed other impacts of oil and gas development, such as seismic testing, which can cause biological impacts to marine mammals, including bowhead whales.

In its decision to open the Chukchi Sea, the agency also failed to consider the combined effects of global warming and oil and gas activities in the region, the plaintiff groups claim.

The Chukchi Sea is inhabited by one-tenth of the world’s polar bears, as well as walruses and endangered bowhead whales.

Polar bears on the Alaskan
shore (Photo courtesy DOI)

Polar bears are currently under consideration for listing by the federal government as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this month, the Interior Department announced it would delay its decision on whether or not to list the bear for approximately one month.

The conservationists and natives point out that the delay allows just enough time for the Chukchi lease sale to move forward on February 6.

“The Bush administration is rushing ahead to give oil companies as much of the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea as it can without disclosing the full impact of oil and gas activities on the people and wildlife that depend on this fragile and rapidly changing ocean,” said attorney Eric Jorgensen of Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiff groups.

According to internal documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility last month, the Interior Department ignored warnings by its own scientists that the agency had failed to fully assess the potential impacts of a lease sale in the area.

The Bush administration has also been criticized internationally for blocking scientists’ policy recommendations in a recent report on drilling by the eight nation Arctic Council.

Earlier this week, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill that would prohibit any oil and gas activity in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas until the full impacts of exploration are understood.

In the House of Representatives, Congressman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill requiring that the Chukchi lease sale be immediately delayed until a polar bear listing decision has been made.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Alaska Congressional Delegation, and local and state officials strongly oppose the listing of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, saying that use of this law to protect the species is unnecessary.

“The polar bear is already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in many cases is much more restrictive than the Endangered Species Act,” said Alaska Congressman Don Young in January.

Luthi says Congress had opportunities to disapprove the Chukchi Sea leasing in both the 2002-2007 Oil and Gas Leasing Program and again in the 2007-2012 Program, but Congress did not turn down either program.

“The decision of whether or not to drill the Arctic should be about science, not politics,” said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. “Scientists have warned about the risks of drilling the Chukchi Sea. Hiding that information from the public doesn’t make it go away.”

But in Luthi’s view the criteria are different. “Our decision comes down to the bare necessities – where do we want to get our energy? Having a domestic supply is far more reliable and secure than relying upon foreign sources,” he said Friday. “Can we develop domestic supplies and provide protection for the environment and wildlife, including polar bears? Yes, we can and should.”

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