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Exploiters Rush into Melting Arctic

With late winter, sunlight returns to the North Pole, revealing an ice-bound ocean that looks deceptively like it always has—a frozen, pristine wilderness. Deceptive, because profound and rapid change is underway from the forces of climate change and our relentless quest for energy.

Year-round ice that once gouged trenches 1,300 feet below the ocean surface is now so thin in the Arctic seas that summers may be ice-free in 30 years, if not sooner, exposing an entire wild ocean to large-scale economic exploitation and ecological devastation.

Arctic Circle nations aren't waiting for the ice to fully clear, however. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are laying claim to undersea economic zones 200 miles and more from their shorelines with hopes of quickly opening them to mining, fossil fuel extraction, industrial scale fisheries, and associated shipping and development activities, all of which threaten fragile ecosystems we are only beginning to understand.

Of the nations, none is more audacious than Russia, which planted its flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole last August as an ominous, if symbolic, stake in an undersea area estimated to hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves. But no less audacious is what a private venture is plotting—exclusive rights to exploit the vast unclaimed Arctic Commons. They've even asked the United Nations to grant those rights.

Not to be outdone, the Bush administration has plunged ahead with fast-track oil and gas leasing and exploration permits in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas that portends what is envisioned throughout the Arctic: industrialization on a massive scale. The most recent sale, in the Chukchi off the northwest coast of Alaska, was rushed ahead of a previously announced deadline for the administration to declare polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The postponement of the polar bear decision from Jan. 9 cannot be coincidental. A species protected by the ESA must be given a much higher level of environmental assessment than was done for the lease sale.

Of the species imperiled by ongoing and proposed development, none are more susceptible than polar bears and bowhead whales. Major oil spills are highly probable, say government scientists, and will prove especially deadly to polar bears, which tend to ingest oil and otherwise won't have ice to escape it. Earthjustice legal action has so far kept Shell Oil from exercising its Bush-given exploration rights in the Beaufort Sea, offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where seismic and drilling activity will seriously disrupt feeding and birthing activities of both species. Earthjustice is also challenging the Chukchi lease sale.

But, our current legal actions notwithstanding, the looming challenge is staggering. Once the whimsy of adventurers and dreamers, the Northwest Passage could become an industrial highway, transporting oil, servicing liquefied natural gas complexes, and feeding development fostered by the new wealth. Native cultures may be turned upside down by loss of fishing and hunting grounds and cultural disruption. Vast untouched fish stocks may be plundered by fleets of fishing trawlers. Oil rigs and the industrial activity that support them could blanket Arctic waters.

The speed at which all this is happening is breathtaking—obviously because the ice is vanishing so rapidly, but also because scientific warnings are being suppressed or ignored by this country and others in their pell mell rush to exploit opportunities. We are convinced that government scientists were pressured to give short shrift to environmental reviews of lease sales in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering seas. We also know that an international scientific report six years in the making was heavily censored because of its warnings about environmental effects of Arctic ocean drilling and explorations—and its conclusion that much more study and assessment are needed.

While these scenarios are ominous, we don't believe they are inevitable. Earthjustice is bolstering its legal advocacy by adding staff to our Alaska office, bringing together our Arctic, oceans, and international expertise, and creating alliances with a broad coalition, including Native Alaskans. We are determined to slow and even halt reckless oil and gas exploration, and to prevent the decimation of fishing stocks suffered in other oceans of the world. And we will work to bring about the international agreements so necessary to the ultimate protection of Arctic ecosystems.

As we move forward in meeting this great environmental showdown, we invite your comments and your support. In turn, we will keep you informed on our progress.