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."