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Decision due soon on Arctic Ocean oil drilling

September 21, 2009 |  7:07 pm


Arctic-oil-protest

Opponents of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic are making a last-ditch effort to convince the Obama administration to impose the same kind of moratorium on oil and gas development that it did on major commercial fishing in the Far North.

Signatures from nearly 300,000 people supporting a halt on new drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and also in Alaska's Bristol Bay, were unveiled outside the Department of Interior in Washington, on the last day available for public comment before the department decides on future leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.

A group of more than 400 scientists also is joining the public push against Arctic drilling. In a letter to the president timed to the deadline for offshore oil comments, a large group of biologists, oceanographers and other scientists warned that profound physical and biological changes in the Arctic Ocean connected to the rapid shrinking of sea ice leave too many unanswered questions to proceed with new oil and gas development.

"Offshore oil and gas activity poses risks to marine mammals, sea birds and fishes from oil spills and chronic habitat degradation through noise, bottom disturbance, and pollution," the scientists said in their letter. "Adequate technology does not exist to clean up oil spills in broken ice, and the cumulative impacts of widespread industrial activity will only grow."

The letter urged a delay in new development until adequate studies give scientists a better understanding of the ecosystem. It also said delays would allow for better consultation with Alaska residents in the Arctic concerned about the impacts of oil drilling on the whales and other marine mammals that form the backbone of their livelihoods.

"There's a great deal of information from different sides in the debate," said Henry Huntington, science director for the Pew Environment Group's Arctic program, "and I think it's important to hear what scientists have to say about their understanding of the ecosystem, and equally important, the scientists' understanding of ... how well do we really know this ecosystem?"

"We still have a chance to do it right in the Arctic," Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for the group Oceana, said in a statement. "All we're really asking is that for once we look before we leap."

Bristol Bay is south of the Arctic Circle but has been no less controversial because it is home to one of the  nation's most productive fisheries, worth more than $2 billion a year, including the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world.

Lease sales there are scheduled in 2011 but have met opposition from a large number of fishermen and Native Alaskans who argue that the region's fishery will ultimately generate much more income than oil and gas production.

With diminishing supplies of oil around the world and increasing worries about America's dependence on foreign oil sources, the federal government is looking hard at untapped deposits offshore around the country, many of which have been long off-limits from drilling for environmental reasons.

The Minerals Management Service opened more than 70 million acres in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering seas to oil and gas development from 2007 to 2012, though the program has been largely paralyzed by environmental challenges in the courts.

The Bush administration also proposed an even more ambitious Alaska leasing program for a total of 127.5 million acres by 2015. Federal officials estimate that 27 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil reserves lie beneath the coastal waters of Alaska.

The state has been a big proponent of the drilling expansion, arguing along with federal officials who approved the leasing program that it can be done with sufficient safeguards for wildlife and adequate protections to prevent damage from oil spills in the fragile Arctic environment. Oil wells at Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's North Slope, have been gradually making their way offshore in the last several years with few serious adverse consequences.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) submitted his own six-page comment to the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, urging "careful" development of offshore resources "to fuel America and help ensure our nation's energy security."

"Sound science and a process that values the wisdom of local voices can safely guide this development. The economic and strategic security of our nation requires that we policy makers make these decisions so they [are] not dependent on the whims of the federal court system," he wrote.


Begich also is arguing for a bigger local share in offshore oil revenues, similar to that awarded residents of Southern states from oil development in the Gulf of Mexico under federal legislation passed in 2006. "If Alaska had been included in that legislation, the state would have received more than $900 million in revenues," Begich wrote.

"Alaskans are no less worthy, particularly while they arguably bear greater risks." Download Begich's comment letter.

Monday's signature presentation in Washington featured wild Alaskan salmon cakes for lunch and a giant postcard turned over to Kim Elton, a former Alaska state legislator who is the Interior secretary's official representative for Alaskan affairs.

 Department officials have not said when they will make a decision on the leasing program.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, appointed to look at the escalating hazards facing the oceans -- from pollution to overfishing to acidification -- put the Arctic among its top objectives in the panel's first set of interim recommendations, released last week.

The federal government's ocean planning should find better ways to conserve and sustainably manage Arctic coastal and ocean resources, improve coordination of U.S. Arctic policy, and improve scientific understanding of the region, the interim report suggests.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Monday's signature presentation from opponents of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic at the Department of Interior, Washington. Credit: Eunice K. Park / World Wildlife Fund.

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