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Putting the Freeze on Drilling

As the rush to drill for the Arctic Ocean’s oil rolls recklessly forward, the Center battles back a slew of planned projects that place polar bears and other warming-threatened Arctic animals at even greater risk.

A merica’s Arctic ocean is vast, mysterious and teeming with life. In response to extreme low temperatures, months of darkness and icy conditions for much of the year, Arctic species have evolved in unique and amazing ways to survive in a harsh but bountiful environment. Walruses have evolved long tusks that they use to pull themselves out of the water and onto the sea ice; polar bears have developed the keen ability to smell seals, their primary prey, from up to 20 miles away.

Unfortunately the Arctic is changing rapidly, melting so quickly that summer sea ice could cease to form entirely in the next two to three decades — within the span of a polar bear’s life. Adding insult to injury, big oil companies are taking advantage of the melting sea ice to push for large-scale industrial oil and gas development in the Arctic ocean.


The Center and our allies have so far been successful in fighting back oil development in the Arctic ocean. Last summer, we launched a successful campaign to stop BP from beginning a new “ultra-extended reach” drilling project in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska. We’ve stopped Shell’s exploration plans every year since 2007. And we’ve earned vital protections for struggling species, such as last year’s designation of more than 120 million acres of “critical habitat” for threatened polar bears.

But we still have our work cut out for us. oil companies, fearful that polar bear protections will get in the way of drilling plans, have sued to overturn their essential habitat designation. We’ve intervened in three separate lawsuits to defend the bears’ habitat. Along with our allies, we’re also in court fighting Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sales, as well as federal regulations that allow the oil industry to harm polar bears and walruses.

The threats keep mounting: Shell recently proposed an unprecedented expansion of oil exploration in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for 2012 and 2013. The oil giant’s planned drilling is an especially terrifying prospect in the Arctic ocean, where icy waters, dark winters, severe storms and lack of infrastructure are just a few of the hurdles making it almost impossibly difficult to respond to an oil spill.

The Center won designation of more than 120 million acres of critical habitat for the polar bear last year — but our work continues to defend the bear’s realm from dangerous offshore drilling.

Even in the temperate Gulf of Mexico, in one of the most developed places on Earth, oil gushed for months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Although the spill killed thousands of birds, sea turtles, dolphins and other wildlife, the oil industry and some in Congress remain eager to return to business-as-usual offshore drilling in the Gulf, the Arctic and beyond. on the one-year anniversary of the Gulf disaster, the Center released a policy paper outlining all of the drilling reforms that have yet to be enacted.

Despite all the reasons not to open up new areas for offshore drilling, President obama recently announced his intention to streamline oil-drilling permitting in Alaska and expand drilling in the Gulf and off the Atlantic coast. This is terrible news. The safeguards of our landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, are all that stand between endangered species and industrial drilling operations in the heart of their habitat.

Rebecca Noblin, staff attorney, directs the Center’s Alaska campaigns from Anchorage — with a focus on protecting marine animals from global warming and oil and gas development.

The Center is committed to fighting the foolhardy rush to drill and will continue to be the voice for vulnerable species such as polar bears, walruses, sea turtles and bluefin tuna, which stand to lose everything when the places they live are turned into industrial zones.



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