Polar Distress

Polar Distress

With the clock running out in January, the Bush administration, ignoring the concerns of its own scientists and possibly breaking federal law, looks to open a vital stretch of Arctic habitat to offshore oil and gas drilling. So much for saving endangered bears.

By Daniel Glick
Published: May-June 2008

Environmentalists have waged a two-decades-long campaign to stop oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an onshore area to the east of the Chukchi. But some biologists believe the Chukchi leases are far more problematic, since offshore drilling presents greater challenges and dangers than stationary rigs on land. Lori Quakenbush, the Arctic marine mammals program leader for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says that with offshore drilling "there are a lot more risks involved," including the potential for catastrophic oil spills, the harassment of animals through seismic exploration and floating industrial activities, the increase in boat traffic along the same small areas of open water (called leads) that many animals use, and the impacts on Inupiaq subsistence hunters if animals move farther offshore. In the Chukchi, she says, "there are way more species and way more numbers of each species" than in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, elsewhere along the Arctic coastal plain, or even in the neighboring Beaufort Sea. "That ramps up the concern."

The Chukchi leasing decision embodies what is possibly the ultimate environmental irony of our time: It is a fight to protect a region already affected by global warming from more energy development, which will only exacerbate those effects once that oil and gas is drilled and burned. With its decision to expedite the contentious Chukchi lease, the Bush administration chose to quite literally add more fuel to the global warming fire.


For the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees offshore leases, the biological trove of cetaceans and crustaceans, pinnipeds and ursidae off Alaska's north coast is simply known as Chukchi Sea Sale 193. Last February 6, at the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage, representatives from Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other energy companies packed a meeting room to roll some really big dice in a high-stakes game for the sale. Since this was the first lease sale in the Chukchi in 17 years (those previous leases were relinquished or expired without any oil or gas production), excitement ran high. Armed with proprietary information gleaned from floating seismic sounders they had deployed to survey the ocean floor for telltale signs of hydrocarbons, company representatives submitted sealed bids with potentially several hundred billion dollars of profits at stake.

For years oil companies had shied away from seeking permission to drill in Alaska's offshore areas for several reasons, including the expense of operating in such a challenging environment and the relatively low price of oil. But as predictions of an ice-free Arctic summer moved toward becoming a reality and oil first topped $100 a barrel the month before the sale, companies like Shell took another look and liked what they saw, especially in the lame-duck days of an administration led by oilmen George Bush and Dick Cheney. Leaving little to chance, Shell, a leading player in the Chukchi oil sale, hired a phalanx of former Bush administration officials as well as some Inupiaq leaders to help pave the way, including Paul Stang, former MMS regional supervisor for leasing and environment; Camden Toohey, former special assistant to the Interior Secretary for Alaska Affairs; and George Ahmaogak, former North Slope Borough (NSB) mayor. (The NSB encompasses eight Inupiaq communities.)

Presiding over the sale, Randall Luthi, director of the MMS, opened the auction with an edge of anticipation--not just from the energy companies set to bid tens of millions of dollars for hundreds of nine-square-mile sections but also for protestors gathered to express their opposition. In preparing for the sale, Luthi stated the Bush administration creed that drilling for more domestic oil would reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil at a time when worldwide demand is growing and America's energy use is increasing. He insisted that environmental safeguards would be in place, and noted that some areas close to shore had been placed off-limits. What did go on the auction block, Luthi said, was "one of the last energy frontier areas in North America."

When the day was through, companies had submitted sealed bids totaling $2.6 billion for the rights to oil and gas under nearly 30 million acres of seabed more than 50 miles from the Alaska coast along the outer continental shelf. If any oil or gas were to be extracted, the federal government would receive 12.5 percent royalties for what the MMS has estimated might be as much as 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The state of Alaska would receive virtually no royalty payments, nor would the Alaska Native corporations.

Milling outside the library in minus-12-degree weather, members of the Point Hope community, which had joined a lawsuit contesting the lease, and other Inupiaq protestors held placards that read "Not in My Garden" and "Oil and Polar Bears Don't Mix." Steve Oomittuk, mayor of Point Hope City, said that his ancestors "have hunted and depended on the animals that migrate through the Chukchi Sea for thousands of years." Even in the Internet age, he said in a statement, Inupiaq communities still depend on subsistence hunting. "This is our garden, our identity, our livelihood. Without it we would not be who we are today."

Author Profile

Daniel Glick

Daniel Glick, a frequent contributor to Audubon, is a Colorado-based writer and the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs).

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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