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Conservation Organizations Decry Controversial Chukchi Lease Sale, Raising Concerns About Survival of Polar Bears

The Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency within the Department of Interior (DOI), issued its Final Notice of Intent for the Chukchi Lease Sale 193 opening approximately 29.7 million acres of the pristine Chukchi Sea to oil and gas activities on January 2.

This controversial announcement comes just days before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is due to decide if the polar bear should be listed under the Endangered Species Act due to severe habitat loss from melting sea ice in Alaska's Arctic Ocean caused by global warming. If the polar bear is listed, FWS is required to designate critical habitat for the bear, which may include the same waters contained in Lease Sale 193. The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas support an estimated one-fifth of the world's polar bear population.

"The polar bear's existence is increasingly threatened by the impact of climate change-induced loss of sea ice," said Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF's Kamchatka and Bering Sea Program. "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."

By law, MMS is required to issue a final notice at least 30 days in advance of any lease sale. This is the next step to allow for the lease sale to move forward February 6.

"It is disappointing that the concerns of U.S. Senators, Representatives, Alaskan Native voices, independent fishermen, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes National Marine Fisheries Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the public have all been ignored by Secretary Dirk Kempthorne," said Kristen Miller, Legislative Director for Alaska Wilderness League.

"The polar bear is in need of intensive care," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, "but with this lease sale the Bush administration is proposing to burn down the hospital."  

"MMS, by its own admission, has stated that oil spills are likely from its proposal to open up the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas development," said Mike Daulton, Audubon's Director of Conservation Policy. "That, combined with findings from the Army Corps of Engineers citing there are no effective methods for cleaning up oil spills in Arctic waters, seems enough reason to halt oil and gas activities until more is known about the migratory birds, marine life and unique conditions in this very harsh environment."

In April 2007, Native activist group REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction of Indigenous Lands) and several conservation groups filed suit against MMS for its approval of Shell Offshore Inc.'s proposed oil and gas exploration in another part of the Arctic Ocean, the Beaufort Sea.  In August, a stay on all exploration activity in the Beaufort Sea was granted to the plaintiffs until the final arguments were heard. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that MMS approved the plan for development in the Beaufort Sea through a rushed and inadequate process, despite the threat oil drilling poses to the sensitive Arctic marine ecosystem.  In addition, the agency failed to fully analyze the full range of potential impacts and did not conduct a sufficient public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  MMS failed, for example, to consider the potential for an accidental spill of crude oil and did not provide a period for public comment or review.  The final arguments were heard in December and a ruling is expected in the coming months.

"We can live without petroleum, but we cannot live without the whale," said George Edwardson, Inupiaq subsistence hunter.


Click here to learn more about WWF's work in the Bering Sea and Kamchatka.