Environmental groups condemn oil lease sale off Alaskan coast

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Drilling could take place no closer than 50 miles off shore.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The federal Minerals Management Service gave final approval Wednesday to oil and natural gas development off Alaska's northwest shore, drawing condemnation from environmental groups concerned with the effects on marine mammals.

The MMS said it would hold a lease sale Feb. 6 in Anchorage for bidding on nearly 46,000 square miles of outer continental shelf lands in the Chukchi Sea, the part of the Arctic Ocean that begins north of the Bering Strait and stretches between northwest Alaska and the northern coast of the Russian Far East.

It would be the first federal OCS oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea since 1991. MMS Alaska spokeswoman Robin Cacy said the area contains an estimated 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recoverable natural gas.

Polar bear habitat

The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is days away from deciding whether polar bears should be declared threatened because of global warming and its effect on the animal's primary habitat, sea ice.

"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 World Wildlife Fund's Kamchatka and Bering Sea Program. "The chances for the continued survival of this icon of the Arctic will be greatly diminished if its last remaining critical habitat is turned into a vast oil and gas field."

Polar bears spend most of their lives on sea ice. They use sea ice to hunt their primary prey, ringed seals. In Alaska, females use sea ice to den or to reach denning areas on land.

Arctic sea ice this summer plummeted to the lowest levels since satellite measurements began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado.

Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that filed the petition seeking polar bear protections, said protections for marine mammals are insufficient.

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

'A good balance'

Drilling could take place no closer than 50 miles off shore, and MMS director Randall Luthi said the lease sale was supported by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta and other community and tribal leaders.

"We believe our decision is a good balance, and will allow companies to explore this intriguing frontier area while still protecting the resources important to the coastal residents," Luthi said.

The sale area will not include nearshore waters ranging from about 25 to 50 miles from the coast, Luthi said. That buffer includes a nearshore "polynya" through which bowhead and beluga whales, other marine mammals, and marine birds migrate north in the spring, and in which local communities subsistence hunt.

Two sales have been held in the Chukchi Sea Planning Area previously in 1988 and 1991. All of those leases have expired.

A lack of sea ice last summer forced much of the Chukchi Sea's walrus population to haul out on shore. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not analyzed aerial photographs to do an official count but estimate that as many as 6,000 walruses hauled out on the coast that parallels the lease area because they did not have the sea ice to use as a platform for foraging on clams, snails, crabs, shrimps and worms on the ocean bottom.

On the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea, biologists recorded huge herds gathering on shore instead of the pack ice, including one group of up to 40,000 animals at Point Shmidt, a spot that had not been used by walruses as a haulout for a century. Russian biologists estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 animals were crushed in stampedes when polar bears, hunters low-flying aircraft startled walruses and sent them rushing to the safety of the sea.

On the Net:

Minerals Management Service Alaska: http://www.mms.gov/alaska

World Wildlife Fund: http://www.worldwildlife.org/

Center for Biological Diversity: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/

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