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

The MMS's own public estimates for potential calamity ought to be sounding a loud alarm. In the final environmental impact statement (EIS) that governed the Chukchi lease sale, the government forecast a 33 percent to 51 percent chance of a large spill in the Chukchi. (By contrast, says Steiner, the government had predicted that an Exxon Valdez-type spill would occur once every 241 years; it happened the 12th year after tankers started sailing from Valdez.) "If a large spill were to occur, the analysis identifies potentially significant impacts to bowhead whales, polar bears, essential fish habitat, marine and coastal birds, subsistence hunting, and archaeological sites," said the EIS.

The MMS also acknowledges that walruses, a species that is notoriously sensitive and has been known to stampede one another to death when disturbed, would be harmed by development. Furthermore, bowhead whales are susceptible to damage from seismic activity. Threatened eider species could face potentially significant mortality. Oil spills, in particular, would cause a slew of devastating effects that would ripple through the food chain. In the final EIS, wrote the MMS, "There is a high potential for marine and coastal birds to experience disturbance and habitat alteration."

Even the research that the MMS quoted is being mischaracterized, says the University of Maryland's Cooper. While researching a recent application for a National Science Foundation grant to study the Chukchi, Cooper reviewed the MMS materials only to discover that the federal agency was using outdated information and had glossed over recent research, like that done by Cooper and his colleagues. For example, the scientists had discovered a "submarine canyon" in the Chukchi that is a forest of corals, tunicates (filter feeders like sea squirts), and vitally important benthic marine life. "They're working with very old information," says Cooper.  "If people knew what was on the bottom there, they would fence it out."

Nevertheless, the agency's conclusion was one of the federal government's most unfortunate acronyms: FONSI, or "finding of no significant impact."


Offshore oil activity, even in relatively benign environments, has resulted in 117 spills in outer continental shelf waters since 2000 alone, according to MMS data. Offshore oil platforms have a checkered history even in more moderate seas below the Arctic Circle. Last December StatoilHydro, a Norwegian company that won some of the Chukchi leases, announced that 25,000 barrels of oil had spilled at one of its North Sea oilfields. The standard practices of reacting to oil spills at sea by burning them, by spreading dispersants, or by mechanical recovery would be nearly impossible in the icy conditions that still exist during most of the Arctic year. "They don't even begin to have the technology to clean up oil in an environment like the Chukchi Sea," says Alaska Audubon's Senner.

Scientists inside and outside federal agencies warn that increasing the floating human footprint from offshore rigs, seismic exploration, and more transport vessels may well push a reeling environment over the edge. Inserting tool pushers, roughnecks, roustabouts, mud engineers, derrick hands, geologists, and other oil platform workers into a world of stressed-out seals, worried walruses, and imperiled polar bears strikes many wildlife biologists and oceanographers as a singularly bad idea. Add to that the likelihood of oil spills in an icy, stormy clime, and ecologists warn of disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill--or worse.

Today the heralds of climate change have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Species are disappearing at a horrifying rate. And the United States' leadership in environmental stewardship has been sorely tainted. These events in the "polar bear seas" thus raise concerns across the country.

Energy policy--especially support for renewable energy and greater conservation--will certainly become a 2008 campaign issue. Experts in and out of industry acknowledge that the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels will never be sated by domestic production. As the planet warms and the unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels become more apparent, it is likely that the cries to protect some of this country's last undeveloped lands will only grow louder.

In the eyes of University of Alaska professor Steiner, however, the Chukchi sales represent "a worrisome new phase in our addiction for oil." The dire need for the world to combat global warming by weaning itself from hydrocarbons is bound to bring up analogies to reckless junkies. Says Steiner, "We are at the desperate stage where we are accepting more and more risk to get the next fix."

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

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.