Offshore Oil Plan Continues to Threaten Northern Alaska Seas

Obama administration sends mixed signals on drilling

This page was published 14 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Today, the Obama administration sent a mixed signal on offshore oil drilling, a move guaranteed to raise concerns from native groups, environmentalists, and communities living near some of the most sensitive and biologically diverse coastal areas. Obama and Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a plan to halt oil and gas leasing in Bristol Bay off Alaska’s southwestern coast and to postpone future lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, off Alaska’s northern coast, while needed missing information is gathered.

We agree that Salazar made the right move on Bristol Bay—home of the world’s largest salmon fishery—and on postponing future oil and gas lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, sensitive areas of America’s Arctic Ocean that are undergoing dramatic shifts due to climate change and about which large gaps in basic scientific information remain. These proposals give the administration the chance to use sound science and smart planning in future decisions about new leasing in the Arctic.

Secretary Salazar’s proposal, however, only takes some of the steps needed for real, substantive protections for America’s Arctic Ocean. Although today’s proposal would postpone future lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, it would uphold Bush-era leases in almost 2.8 million acres of the Chukchi Sea and allow exploration drilling to move forward in both seas starting as early as this summer—decisions Earthjustice is currently challenging in court.

The Secretary still has a chance to reverse this Bush-era leasing, done hurriedly and without the science the Secretary agrees is necessary to develop. But his current course undercuts his commitment to drilling "in the right places and the right ways." The proposed plan unnecessarily, and blindly, puts the Arctic Ocean, its wildlife, and its traditional Native coastal communities at risk in the short term even while it commits to more study in the future.

Even the Minerals Management Service acknowledges that oil activities in the Chukchi Sea are expected to result in unavoidable adverse impacts to wildlife in the region. Much more scientific study is needed before such potentially destructive activity can proceed. Secretary Salazar needs to listen to science on every offshore drilling decision, not just some. The Secretary should halt oil and gas activity in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas while the administration’s scientists gather basic missing biological information needed to make responsible and informed management decisions about the region.

The Chukchi Sea is a portion of the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait and west of the Beaufort Sea. It provides rich feeding grounds and habitat for a variety of marine life. Endangered species reside there such as bowhead whales, gray whales, beluga whales, walrus, polar bears, and spectacled and Steller’s eiders. At least 98 species of fish, including Pacific salmon and Arctic Cod are found in the Chukchi.

The Chukchi Sea is the center of the culture, identity and subsistence way of life of Inupiat communities along its coast, and provides them with food, clothing, and materials for traditional arts. Over 71 percent of Point Hope households obtain half or more of their food from harvesting local Chukchi Sea resources.

No technology exists to clean up oil spills that occur in the ice and treacherous seas of America’s Arctic Ocean. An oil spill in this region would devastate this area and cause irreparable harm. Salazar will hold a public comment period soon on today’s announcement, and we’ll be calling upon you to let him know that we need him to take all the steps necessary for protecting America’s Arctic Ocean. All offshore drilling decisions, not just some, should be based on sound science.

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.