Coalition of U.S. Senators Say No to Arctic Oil & Gas Leases

Led by Senator Merkley, senators urge Secretary Salazar: Take Arctic drilling off the table


Kari Birdseye, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2098


Gwen Dobbs, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205


Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 225-9113, ext. 102

A coalition of senators showed their support for America’s Arctic Ocean by sending a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging him not to schedule new Arctic Ocean lease sales until a plan is in place that prioritizes protection of the Arctic’s fragile and abundant marine ecosystem.

From the letter: “In the event of an oil spill the response may be too slow and irreversible damage to ecosystems and species could result.”
Kittiwakes. Chukchi Sea, Alaska.
(Florian Schulz /

The letter, spearheaded by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and signed by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), addresses the 2012–2017 Outer Continental Shelf drilling program. The senators ask Secretary Salazar to ensure that exploration and drilling would not harm either the Arctic ecosystem or opportunities for subsistence by the people of Alaska’s Arctic coast by deferring any additional Arctic Ocean lease sales from the five-year schedule.

“Challenges with infrastructure and spill response are unprecedented in the Arctic’s remote, undeveloped region: the Arctic Ocean is characterized by hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures and months-long darkness,” the letter reads, “Moreover, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure (there are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports) and the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away. In the event of an oil spill the response may be too slow and irreversible damage to ecosystems and species could result. Consequently, we strongly disagree that leases in the Arctic Ocean should be included in the 2012–2017 program.”

While the letter recognizes that the Obama administration kept the Atlantic coast, Pacific coast, and North Aleutian Basin out of the final version of the 2012–2017 plan, it notes that the reasoning used to keep leasing out of these areas—local recommendations and lack of infrastructure and oil spill preparedness—are even more pertinent for the Arctic, making the proposed Arctic leasing rather “perplexing.”

The letter goes on to urge the Obama administration to make future Arctic lease sales contingent upon the development of an integrated scientific research and monitoring program; make Arctic lease sales conditional upon the demonstration of effective oil spill response capability and preparedness; and expand existing deferrals for areas known to be important for subsistence or ecological reasons, such as Hanna Shoal and Barrow Canyon.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean has recently faced national scrutiny, as Shell Oil has experienced continuing problems that have forced the oil giant to curtail its Arctic oil drilling program this summer.

Quotes from conservation groups:

“We thank Senator Merkley (D-OR) for his leadership in protecting America’s Arctic Ocean from unsafe and irresponsible drilling,” said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director of Alaska Wilderness League. “We urge the Obama administration to take Arctic drilling off the table for the same reasons that the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the North Aleutian Basin were spared—because of local voices that oppose development and a lack of infrastructure and preparedness.”

“Requesting that sound science be considered before opening such a pristine place as the Arctic for additional oil and gas leasing is smart leadership,” said Jessica Ennis of Earthjustice. “We thank these six senators for recognizing the importance of stewardship of this region.”

“As these senators wisely recognize, drilling in the Arctic poses special challenges that must be addressed,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director. “In the wake of recent events demonstrating these special challenges and a lack of preparedness by the oil industry it is clear that requiring basic precautions and information before opening this fragile area to drilling is a responsible thing to do.”

Read the letter.

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