Offshore arctic drilling poses a risk to wildlife from whales to seals and polar bears. Rather than race helter-skelter to develop new oil frontiers, we should instead focus our efforts on transitioning to renewables

© Daniel J. Cox/Natural

6/22/2015 1:35:15 PM

Offshore Arctic Drilling: Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong Activity

By Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, Chief Scientist 

The recent news that the Obama administration has given conditional approval to Shell Oil to drill in the deep waters off the Alaskan coast is cause for concern. The area in question, the Chukchi Sea, is prime habitat for polar bears and other arctic wildlife, including the seals that support polar bears, walruses, and two species of great whales. The abundant wildlife is important to the health of the ecosystem and to arctic people living along the shore of the Chukchi Sea in both Alaska and Russia—sustaining unique cultures in one of the more remote parts of our planet. 

At Polar Bears International we recognize that the greatest threat to polar bears is sea ice loss from global warming mainly due to burning fossil fuels. Although oil and gas are likely to remain an important part of human life for some time to come, our main focus must be to reduce their use rather than race helter-skelter to bring new reserves into production.  

Given that a future for polar bears depends on developing a sustainable and largely non-carbon economy, we feel that no new oil or gas developments should be approved, especially in the offshore Arctic, until a fair price for carbon emissions is established. If the costs of fossil fuel development and use were not hidden, the race to new oil frontiers would slow dramatically. 

Aside from the additional warming that would be caused by burning the oil that Shell is pursuing in offshore Alaska, recent events show clearly that offshore oil developments include real environmental risks at the local and regional level. Although a large arctic spill has not occurred in the marine environment, such a spill could lead to widespread fatalities for both seals and polar bears. Such an event also would have far-reaching impacts throughout the arctic ecosystem, because cold temperatures would delay the breakdown of hydrocarbons and related chemicals. 

Compounding the risks of offshore developments in the Arctic, there is presently no proven method to clean up oil spills in arctic waters and limited equipment to respond to a spill event. Basic emergency response infrastructure, to protect wildlife and people is unproven in the Arctic environment.

Given the already precarious future faced by polar bears and their environment, oil exploration and development in the offshore Arctic could only pose additional challenges. Permitting offshore development in Alaskan polar bear habitats is the wrong activity at the wrong time and in the wrong place. 

Rather than devoting time, money, and ingenuity to expanding oil production, we should focus instead on developing and building investment in renewables—paving the way to a sustainable future for polar bears and the rest of us.

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