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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Polar Bears Get a Reprieve

Finally, there is a bit of good news to report on the animal front. A federal judge has recently suspended plans by oil and gas companies – namely Shell Oil – to drill new wells in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. This ruling not only shelves another threat to polar bears, who are already struggling to outsmart climate change and trophy hunters, but it will also help other endangered wildlife, like bowhead and beluga whales, seals, walruses and many species of birds, who call this Arctic sea home.

Extraction rights to the Chukchi Sea, which straddles the Siberian and Alaskan coasts, were originally sold off by the Bush administration in 2008 for 2.6 billion dollars. In a surprise move this past January, the Obama administration adopted the Bush policy and handed Shell Oil carte blanche to drill in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, just 20 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In response, a group of environmental organizations represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, sued the federal government to stop the drilling, accusing the government, specifically the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), of breaking environmental laws and failing to assess the impacts of oil development in such a sensitive ecosystem. A federal judge agreed and notified the Obama administration that they must re-examine the environmental risks of drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

Given what recently happened in the Gulf of Mexico, and bearing in mind that it was the same corrupt MMS that gave away drilling permits to BP like it was candy; it’s unbelievable that the government would continue to put lives at risk and gamble away our Earth’s precious resources to big oil.

Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, the waters in the Chukchi Sea are dark and cold, making any kind of oil spill virtually impossible to clean up. The limited technology used in the gulf would be no match for the icy waters of the Arctic. The effects of climate change have already ravaged the region, warming the waters and melting sea ice at such an alarming rate that drilling in the Chukchi Sea could be fatal.

We can be grateful for this small victory, but there is still much work to be done. The polar bear and other wildlife in the region continue to struggle for their lives. Our addiction to oil-produced and -dependent goods (gum, cars, plastic bags, water bottles, etc.) gives undue power and influence to oil companies. More than 90 offshore wells already exist in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. While we still stand in the shadow of the greatest man-made environmental disaster, I hope the Obama administration will take this opportunity to put a certain end to drilling in the Earth’s waters once and for all, but he can only do it with our help.

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Photo courtesy of NRDC.

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