Lawsuit to Be Filed to Protect Polar Bears from Oil Development and Greenhouse Gases; Offshore Oil Development in Arctic Seas Challenged


CONTACT: Center for Biological Diversity
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232 x 304
Whit Sheard, Pacific Environment, (907) 982-7095

Lawsuit to Be Filed to Protect Polar Bears from Oil Development and Greenhouse Gases
Offshore Oil Development in Arctic Seas Challenged

SAN FRANCISCO – June 9 – Today two conservation groups formally notified Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne of their intent to file suit under the Endangered Species Act for Secretary Kempthorne’s failure to protect polar bears from oil development in their habitat in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

Polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act on May 15, 2008 due to the ongoing and projected loss of their sea-ice habitat from global warming. Polar bears in the United States live on and near the seasonally frozen waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska. The Bush administration has opened up virtually all of this habitat to leasing by oil companies.

“The only thing keeping pace with the drastic melting of the Arctic sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of the Interior is rushing to sell off polar bear habitat for fossil fuel development,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For polar bears to survive in the face of global warming, we need to protect their habitat, not auction it off to oil companies.”

The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies to ensure that any action they carry out does not “jeopardize” a listed species. The recent listing of the polar bear triggers a legal obligation for Secretary Kempthorne to reexamine all ongoing federally authorized offshore oil-industry actions affecting the polar bear, including recent and proposed lease sales, exploration plans, development plans, seismic surveys, and take authorizations.

“Things are happening so fast in the Arctic that we need to take a timeout from further offshore oil development in the region,” said Whit Sheard, Alaska program director of Pacific Environment. “Unilaterally zoning America’s Arctic seas for oil drilling is the opposite of sound management — the risks to the polar bear, the marine environment, and Arctic communities, who have subsisted in the region for thousands of years, are simply too great.”

Offshore oil development directly harms polar bears in numerous ways, ranging from disturbance of bears from vessels, aircraft, and drilling platforms, impacts on the seals they prey on from seismic surveys, and the risk of oil spills. There are no proven technologies for cleaning up an oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic. A large spill, estimated by the Department of the Interior as having a 40-percent chance of occurring as a result of proposed development in the Chukchi Sea, would be catastrophic for polar bears.

The Polar Bear Seas Protection Act (H.R. 6057), introduced by Congressmen Jay Inlsee and Maurice Hinchey in the House, and Senator John Kerry’s similar bill in the Senate (S. 2568), would prohibit further offshore oil-industry activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until Arctic oil-spill response technology is proven and polar bear critical habitat is designated.

In addition to direct impacts on polar bears, offshore oil development in polar bear habitat will also result in millions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions from the exploration and development of the oil fields themselves, while the oil and gas extracted, once burned, will result in billions of tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to examine all aspects of a federally approved activity’s impacts on the polar bear, including “actions directly or indirectly causing modifications to the land, water, or air,” the legally required review of offshore oil impacts on polar bears must also include an analysis of, and measures to reduce, the impacts of greenhouse emissions from those activities on the polar bear.

Last week the U.S. Senate considered, but failed to pass, the Climate Security Act, which if passed would have been the first federal legislation explicitly requiring greenhouse gas reductions. Leading scientists have warned that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels must be reduced to below 350 ppm in order to avoid catastrophic impacts.

“We need federal climate legislation that will effectively reduce carbon dioxide levels to below 350 ppm, and prioritize black carbon and methane reductions to slow and ultimately reverse the melting of the Arctic,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director for the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 scientific petition to list the polar bear under the Act. “In the absence of such legislation, the Endangered Species Act remains the first and best line of defense for the polar bear.”

Today’s 60-day notice of intent to sue, sent by the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment to the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two agencies in the Department of the Interior, is a legally required precursor before a lawsuit can be filed under the Endangered Species Act.


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