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61 Members of Congress Urge DOI to Defer Arctic Ocean Leasing

Chuck Clusen

Posted August 17, 2012 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, U.S. Law and Policy

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This week, 61 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the Department of the Interior’s Secretary Ken Salazar urging protection of America’s Arctic Ocean from hasty oil and gas development.

On the one hand, the letter praises BOEM’s decision to not allow oil and gas development in the Atlantic, Pacific or North Aleutian Basin due to concerns of lack of infrastructure and oil spill preparedness. On the other, the house members correctly note that this logic was not followed in the decision to permit lease sales in the remote and weather-prone Arctic Ocean:

The Arctic Ocean is characterized by hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sup-zero temperatures and months-long darkness. What’s more, 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.

The representatives welcome many of the methods BOEM has proposed to mitigate or eliminate environmental and subsistence conflict yet urge Secretary Salazar to consider that issuing leases in the Arctic Ocean may encourage haste over appropriate caution in Arctic development:     

The delay of the Arctic leases, the inclusion of new deferral and study areas, and your pledge to change the way lease sale areas are defined—from the broad-based “area-wide” approach to a more targeted method—are intended to allow further gathering and analysis of science and information regarding existing priority conflict areas. These are steps in the right direction. However, the Arctic is a unique environment with significant hurdles to safe exploration and drilling. We fear that including Arctic lease sales in the plan creates momentum favoring leasing regardless of whether we can ensure adequate protections for the area.

The representatives offered specific, common-sense proposals that encourage more intelligent and safer practices in Arctic Ocean activity: 

  • Expand existing deferrals, include additional deferrals for areas known to be important for subsistence or ecological reasons—such as Hanna Shoal and Barrow Canyon—and incorporate other restrictions on oil and gas activities to protect biological resources;
  • Make lease sales contingent upon the development, implementation, and use of a comprehensive, integrated scientific research and monitoring program;
  • Condition lease sales on the demonstration of effective oil spill response capability and preparedness.

The suggestions made in this letter are reasonable, workable, and precisely on-the-mark. Not just environmental groups are urging caution in the Arctic; even Lloyd’s of London, a leading insurance market, has cautioned that an oil spill is “the greatest risk [to the Arctic] in terms of environmental damage, potential cost and insurance.”

Too little is known about the operation of this ecosystem and how it would respond to major industrial activity or to oil contamination to allow oil development in the region. In 2005, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission concluded “The Arctic Ocean is the least well known ocean on the planet.” What we do know is that climate change is already having a dramatic effect on the Arctic; sea ice extent has declined 12% per decade leading to, in 2007, the lowest ever recorded summer-ice minimum. Arctic wildlife, uniquely adapted to this environment, is made vulnerable by the rapid changes sweeping the region. An oil spill in Arctic water could further imperil many Arctic species.

As Shell prepares to begin exploratory drilling, it does so with oil spill clean-up plans that rely heavily on technology, booms and skimmers, proven to be only “marginally effective” in even partially ice-covered water—according to a 2011 USGS report.

These 61 are right—we need to pause, do the appropriate science and learn about this majestic and fragile ecosystem, and create the technology necessary to protect it when accidents happen.

Leading this effort were Representatives Rush Holt, David Price, and Lois Capps. Joining in support of Arctic Ocean protection were Representatives Gary L. Ackerman, Timothy H. Bishop, Earl Blumenauer, Bruce Braley, Judy Chu, Hansen Clarke, Yvette D. Clarke, William Lacy Clay, Gerald E. Connolly, John Conyers, Jr., Elijah E. Cummings, Keith Ellison, Anna G. Eshoo, Sam Farr, Bob Filner, Barney Frank, John Garamendi, Raul Grijalva, Alcee L. Hastings, Maurice D. Hinchey, Mazie K. Hirono, Michael M. Honda, Steve Israel, Hank Johnson, Wiliiam R. Keating, Dale E. Kildee, Dennis J. Kucinch, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren, Ben Ray Lujan, Edward J. Markey, Doris O. Matsui, Betty McCollum, Jim McDermott, James P. McGovern, George Miller, James P. Moran, Grace F. Napolitano, Bill Pascrell, Jr., Chellie Pingree, Jared Polis, Mike Quigley, Steven R. Rothman, Jan Schakowsky, Adam B. Schiff, Bobby Scott, Jose E. Serrano, Louise M. Slaughter, Jackie Speier, Mike Thompson, Paul Tonko, Edolphus Towns, Niki Tsongas, Chris Van Hollen, Maxine Waters, Henry A. Waxman, Peter Welch, and Lynn C. Woolsey.

These representatives deserve our thanks for their efforts in defending America's Arctic Ocean.

 

Clint Kincaid aided Chuck Clusen with this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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