Climate worries complicate Alaska drilling plan
Lease sales could produce 15 billion barrels of oil, but environmentalists say drilling would threaten already melting habitat.
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Until further explorations are made, nobody knows for sure whether the Chukchi lease sale will be equally as productive.Skip to next paragraph
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In any case, there's a complicating factor: The lease sale comes as Arctic sea ice has been dwindling at record rates, probably tied to warming caused by climate change. In September, US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists warned that "projected changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in loss of approximately two-thirds of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century."
"Because the observed trajectory of Arctic sea ice decline appears to be underestimated by currently available models, this assessment of future polar bear status may be conservative," USGS reported.
All the more reason not to further interfere with polar habitat, environmentalists say, since the bears rely on sea ice for hunting and denning. "The chances for the continued survival of this icon of the Arctic will be greatly diminished if its remaining critical habitat is turned into a vast oil and gas field," says Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Kamchatka and Bering Sea program.
Critics note that the federal government is considering whether to list the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing would require the US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the bears, which could include parts of the Chukchi Sea.
But it's not just polar bears. Walruses are threatened by shrinking ice as well. Bowhead and beluga whales migrate through the Chukchi Sea, and several shorebird species (some of them endangered) breed in the Chukchi's estuaries and bays.
In the Beaufort Sea, oil company Shell has been temporarily blocked from drilling exploratory wells on the leases it purchased. A federal lawsuit contends that migrating bowhead whales – important to native subsistence hunters – would be harmed by oil and gas operations.
Government officials say they take seriously the need to protect wildlife that could be affected by the search for fossil fuels. Among other things, near-shore waters as far out as 50 miles are not included in the Chukchi oil and gas lease sale. This is to protect bowhead and beluga whales, other marine mammals, and migrating birds. The sale also stipulates that exploration and development methods must minimize interference with subsistence hunting.
"MMS funds a robust environmental studies program to monitor the effects of industry activity in the [outer continental shelf], including more than 40 ongoing Arctic-specific studies," said Minerals Management Service director Randall Luthi in a statement announcing the new lease sale last week. "We are inaugurating a new suite of research for the Chukchi Sea to further monitor marine mammals, other communities, hydrocarbons, and subsistence uses."