Obama Offshore Oil Plan Fails to Protect Fragile Arctic, Polar Bears From Drilling

WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans on Wednesday to revise the national offshore oil-drilling plan that, while protecting areas off Florida and the Atlantic seaboard, would leave drilling in polar bear critical habitat off Alaska on the table. The new proposed plan, covering the years 2012-2017, is virtually the same as the Bush administration’s 2007-2012 plan, which was struck down as unlawful by the courts. Secretary Salazar also announced he was moving forward with plans to allow Shell to drill off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next summer.

“While protecting the fragile coasts of Florida and the Atlantic is important, there is no excuse for continuing to consider drilling in polar bear critical habitat off the coast of Alaska,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the risk of an oil spill is too great for Florida, it is also certainly too great for Alaska.”

Oil development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, home to all of America’s polar bears, is strongly opposed by conservation groups because no technologies exist to clean up oil spills in icy waters. Oil development in the Beaufort Sea would likely also be visible from the shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The new plan would allow drilling on existing leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, while the remainder of these areas would be subject to additional leasing following further environmental studies.

Shell’s plans to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska in 2010 were put on hold following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell has since proposed to drill in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in summer 2011. While Shell had requested approval of the drilling with no further environmental review, Interior Wednesday announced it was moving forward with a new environmental assessment of Shell’s drilling plans. Although this is more red tape than Shell requested, an environmental assessment — rather than a more thorough environmental impact statement — is only appropriate when there is no chance of significant environmental impacts.

“The risk of an oil spill is too great and the consequences to polar bears too high to credibly claim that there will be no significant impacts from drilling in the Arctic. Given the lack of clean-up technology for an oil spill in the Arctic, Interior’s decision to move forward with only an environmental assessment before approving Shell’s drilling plans demonstrates that all the promised reforms following the Gulf spill apparently ultimately mean nothing for the Arctic,” said Cummings.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations filed a court challenge to the 2007-2012 offshore oil leasing plan issued by the Bush administration. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set aside that plan for failing to adequately assess the environmental impacts of opening up areas off Alaska to drilling; a court in Alaska also separately ruled this year that the environmental analysis underlying a lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was unlawful.

In a separate but related development, BP announced this week that it was taking a “time out” due to technical concerns on its Liberty project, a drilling rig being constructed on an artificial island in the Beaufort Sea that was set to begin drilling this winter.

“Since even BP apparently recognizes that rushing to drill in the Arctic is too risky, it seems BP has learned far more from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill than Ken Salazar,” said Cummings.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity

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