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America's Arctic on a Pathway for Change

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In January 2015 President Obama took an important step to protect some key areas in America’s Arctic Ocean, setting aside 9.8 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off-limits to consideration for future oil and gas leasing.

The Presidents Executive Order includes part of Hanna Shoal which is a region in the Chukchi Sea that is increasingly important habitat for sea-ice dependent species such as Walrus. Thanks to the ocean currents, the sea ice lingers longer here in the spring compared to surrounding waters, and acts as a seasonal ice refuges. Also off limits is a 25-mile belt along the Chukchi Sea coast and the Chukchi Corridor, which is a springtime “marine mammal super-highway” for 20,000 bowhead whales as well as beluga whales, walrus, and ice seals that feed and rest as they migrate the vibrant marine waters. In the neighboring Beaufort Sea the President also removed some other environmentally sensitive habitats for whales and places that are critically important for subsistence living of coastal communities. This action builds on recent steps by the President to protect Bristol Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But as the Administration recognized some places are simply “too special to drill”, the U.S. Bureau of Oceans and Energy Management released its 2017-2020 draft plan for offshore oil development in Alaska. These areas include sensitive habitats in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas where offshore oil and gas development has been identified as too risky, where sea ice, severe weather, Arctic fog, and remoteness of the region are significant barriers to safe development.

In the days that followed the leasing plan, Royal Dutch Shell announced its intention to drill in the US Arctic Ocean in 2015, if it secures the needed permits. This comes after a series of accidents and errors including the near-grounding of one of its drill rigs, a fire later on the same rig, the failure of its oil spill containment dome, and the grounding of a drilling rig on a pristine, wildlife-rich island in Alaska in late December 2012.

“The threat of oil spills from risky exploratory drilling threatens Alaska’s Arctic seas and the people who depend on them. After the series of accidents and errors during its first foray of Arctic exploration, the news from Shell raises serious concerns” said Margaret Williams, managing director of US Arctic programs “No oil company should be drilling in the Arctic Ocean when there are no proven ways to do it safely and no viable means for cleaning up potential spills”

As the Arctic faces a pathway for change, 2015 holds great promise for this important region. On April 25, 2015 the US takes over as chair of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum made up of the eight Arctic nations. Together these countries address issues faced by governments and the indigenous people of the region. Under the leadership of Secretary of State, John Kerry, the US has shared their vision to focus on environmental protection, but we will keep a priority on economic development, working towards the goal that the Arctic is a region of peaceful cooperation among the Arctic states

As the NGO observer of the Arctic Council, WWF continues to work with partners in Alaska and across the region to help achieve integrated conservation and sustainability solutions that benefit people and nature.