Plans to drill for Alaskan oil threaten polar bear numbers

A A A

Environment groups are protesting against plans by the US government to open up a vast area of Arctic sea off Alaska for oil exploration, saying it would pose an unacceptable new threat to polar bears and walruses.

The Minerals and Management Service, MMS, said it would be seeking bids for petroleum licences in the Chukchi Sea on 6 February. The 46,000-square-mile area, located between Alaska and the coast of the Russian Far East, holds 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a huge volume of natural gas.

It is also home to one of the two main populations of polar bears in US territory, as well as large herds of walrus. The announcement comes days before Washington is to decide whether polar bears should be declared an endangered species because of the effects of global warming.

"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," said Margaret Williams, of the wildlife group WWF.

The expansion of exploration rights in Alaska is strongly supported by Sarah Palin, the state's governor, but will always be controversial with environmentalists amid growing evidence that global warming and shrinking sea ice are already threatening populations of Arctic mammals.

It is the first time in 15 years that the US government has invited oil companies to bid for new licences in the area. Pamela Miller, of the Northern Alaska Environmental Centre, said the Bush administration had taken insufficient account of recent changes in Arctic conditions associated with global warming before making its decision and had not clearly examined what impact new drilling might have.

But Randall Luthi, director of the MMS, insisted that all environmental risks were explored and taken into account. "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," he said. Moreover, no drilling would be allowed less than 50 miles from shore, he added.

But conservationists are also warning of the danger of accidental oil spills. "No one yet has figured out how to clean up a spill in broken ice, so they just stick their head in the sand and pretend it won't happen," said Brendan Cummings, of the Centre for Biological Diversity.

Researchers recently found that Arctic sea ice had fallen to its lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979.

The US has held off offering new Alaskan licenses for so long in part because of the expected protests of conservationists but also because of the engineering challenges of exploration so far off-shore in such an inhospitable area. Officials admit they do not know what degree of interest oil companies will show because of those difficulties. Environmentalists hope interest is low. "We've seen all these studies and reports concerning significant impacts to marine mammals from global warming," said Betsey Beardsley, of the Alaska Wilderness League. "If you couple that with increased oil and gas development, there's no telling what impact that would have on marine life."

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

Recruitment Genius: Corporate Account Manager

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Corporate Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Chef de Partie

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This award winning conference venues provider...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders