Battle Over Offshore Drilling In Arctic Dwarfs ANWR

Walrus rest on ice. i i

Melting ice over the past few years has forced walruses onto small pieces of remnant ice. The Pacific walrus is under consideration for listing as a threatened or endangered species. Andrew Trites hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Trites
Walrus rest on ice.

Melting ice over the past few years has forced walruses onto small pieces of remnant ice. The Pacific walrus is under consideration for listing as a threatened or endangered species.

Andrew Trites
A U.S. Coast Guard ship on an ice sheet. i i

More than 30 scientists were aboard this 400-foot icebreaker, which is purposefully positioned in the ice so researchers can work. The scientists took samples of water and ice algae (which blooms in the spring on the underside of the ice) and put satellite tags on walruses. Andrew Trites hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Trites
A U.S. Coast Guard ship on an ice sheet.

More than 30 scientists were aboard this 400-foot icebreaker, which is purposefully positioned in the ice so researchers can work. The scientists took samples of water and ice algae (which blooms in the spring on the underside of the ice) and put satellite tags on walruses.

Andrew Trites
Icebreaker ship goes through Chukchi Sea. i i

Scientists on deck lower instruments into open water for samples of the water column, mud from the bottom and everything in between. Andrew Trites hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Trites
Icebreaker ship goes through Chukchi Sea.

Scientists on deck lower instruments into open water for samples of the water column, mud from the bottom and everything in between.

Andrew Trites

Melting ice in the Arctic may not be good for species that live there, but it does mean those icy waters are much more accessible and cost-effective places to drill for oil and gas.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Alaska this week as part of an "information gathering" tour to help craft a new Outer Continental Shelf drilling policy. After two days of public testimony from those for and against offshore drilling, Salazar pronounced Alaskans passionate and divided.

Just over a year ago, the oil and gas industry bid $2.6 billion for drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea, located in the Arctic between Alaska and Russia. It's the largest oil and gas lease sale in history, and it's staggering when compared with the $7 million that the same leases went for in 1991.

Though rapidly retreating sea ice makes it easier and more cost-effective to drill in the Chukchi Sea, it also means the area is more fragile. Just about every marine mammal and seabird in the Chukchi Sea is already endangered or a candidate for listing. And, the opposition from native villages that rely on fish, walrus, seals and whales for subsistence dwarfs the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Melting Ice Could Mean More Drilling, More Controversy

The biggest lease of the most recent sale went to Shell Gulf of Mexico, which spent $105 million for rights in the Chukchi Sea. Shell already had bought leases even further north and was ready with rigs when then-President George W. Bush lifted the ban on drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf.

"We are drill-bit ready to move in the Arctic right now, and this is stuff that can happen right now, and with a few things going our way, we will be ready to go in 2010," says Pete Slaiby, Shell's Alaska general manager.

But those few things are now largely in the hands of Salazar, who went to Alaska this week as part of the process of developing this administration's offshore energy plan. He has called a time out on new leasing, for more public input, and he got plenty Tuesday.

Whaling captain and mayor of the North Slope Borough Edward Itta advised slowing down: "Mr. Secretary, like all Alaskans, the people of the North Slope depend on the economic engine of oil and gas development. We have supported onshore for well over 30 years now. But, Mr. Secretary, offshore is a different matter."

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin advised speeding up: "Delays or major restrictions in accessing our needed resources for environmentally responsible development are not in the nation's or our state's best interest."

Passionate Protests From Both Sides

From laborers in hard hats chanting "jobs, jobs, jobs" to environmentalists dressed as polar bears and puffins, division and emotion over offshore drilling was apparent.

Shell's Slaiby says the industry has learned from problems like the Exxon Valdez spill. Of the total volume of oil, less than 1 percent ends up in the oceans, he says. And, he says, more than 100 exploratory wells have been drilled in U.S. and Canadian Arctic waters without a single accident.

But concern over offshore drilling in Arctic waters doesn't just center on spills. The Interior Department is also responsible for endangered species. An increasing number of marine mammals and seabirds in the arctic are in decline, and the fear is that the impacts of a warming climate will be compounded by new development.

Species At Risk

Traveling on an icebreaker in the northern Bering Sea, University of Wyoming researcher Jim Lovvorn studies seabirds that breed in the Arctic, including the spectacled eider. On both hands, he counts off other species in danger: Steller's eiders, king eiders, common eiders, red-throated loons, yellow-billed loons, four species of ice seal, walruses and bowhead whales.

"You could not find a more sensitive habitat," Lovvorn says.

On the same ship, USGS research ecologist Chad Jay is tracking the Pacific walrus, which is also under consideration for listing as a threatened or endangered species. Reductions in the extent of ice over the past few years have forced walruses onto small pieces of remnant ice.

In 2007, there was no ice at all near the shelf.

"As a result of [ice shelf melting] we saw upwards of 6,000 walruses hauling out along the shore of northwest Alaska, which is the first ever," Jay says. "It means that a greater number of animals are using a smaller space to forage in and to haul out on — probably not a good thing."

But the very thing that is cause for concern with regard to walrus and other species in the Arctic is what's made drilling in these waters more attractive to industry: less sea ice.

Whether and how to balance development of a what is a fragile ecosystem — and what some believe is the next best answer to America's thirst for oil — poses a major policy decision for the new Department of Interior. Salazar says he doesn't expect to make everybody happy.

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