ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The federal government will open up nearly 46,000 square miles off Alaska’s northwest coast to petroleum leases next month, a decision condemned by environmental groups that contend the industrial activity will harm northern marine mammals.
The Minerals Management Agency planned the sale in the Chukchi Sea without taking into account changes in the Arctic brought on by global warming and proposed insufficient protections for polar bears, walrus, whales and other species that could be harmed by drilling rigs or spills, according to the groups.
The lease sale in an area slightly smaller than Pennsylvania was planned without information as basic as the polar bear and walrus populations, said Pamela A. Miller, Arctic coordinator with Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
“The Minerals Management Service is required to have preleasing baseline data sufficient to determine the post-leasing impacts of the oil and gas activities that will occur,” Miller said. “They simply do not have that.”
The Minerals Management Service announced it would hold a lease sale Feb. 6 in Anchorage for the ocean floor on the outer continental shelf, or OCS, of the Chukchi Sea, the body of water that begins north of the Bering Strait and stretches between northwest Alaska and the northern coast of the Russian Far East.
The Minerals Management Service is a branch of the Interior Department. Its stated mission is to manage ocean energy and mineral resources on the outer continental shelf and federal and Indian mineral revenues to enhance public and trust benefits, promote responsible use, and realize fair value.
It would be the first federal OCS oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea since 1991.
Minerals Management Service director Randall Luthi said the agency took steps to protect wildlife.
“MMS funds a robust environmental studies program to monitor the effects of industry activity in the OCS, including more than 40 ongoing Arctic-specific studies,” Luthi said.
The sale is backed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and community and tribal leaders, he said.
Miller and Brendan Cummings, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Minerals Management Service ignored dangers to animals and birds if an oil spill were to occur.
“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,” Cummings said.
He also said the agency’s environmental assessment ignored changes brought by global warming.
The Chukchi Sea, he said, is the nation’s most important habitat for Pacific walrus. The lease sale assumes a stable walrus population, ignoring developments of 2007. Unlike seals, walruses cannot swim indefinitely and must “haul out” on ice or land to rest. In late summer, thousands of animals hauled out on the northwest Alaska coast for several months because their usual platform for foraging, sea ice, receded far beyond the relatively shallow continental shelf over waters too deep for walrus to dive for food.
The Chukchi Sea also is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations.