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The Polar Bear is Still One Oil Spill Away From Disaster

Despite recent proposed critical habitat designation,
The Obama administration's recent proposed designation of 200,000 square miles of Alaskan waters, sea ice and coastal area as critical habitat for the polar bear is encouraging news for a species already imperiled by the effects of global warming and melting Arctic ice.

The Administration's decision recognizes that some of the most sensitive areas on land and in the offshore waters of America's Arctic -including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-are key to the species' survival. In particular, this announcement emphasizes the significance of the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain as a vital denning habitat for the polar bear. However, the designation of critical habitat does not automatically bar commercial activities like oil and gas drilling. I'm writing to urge you to editorialize on this important topic as Secretary Salazar considers a series of decisions for America's Arctic and the polar bear in the months ahead.

Proponents of increased commercial drilling often downplay the risk of a blowout oil spill, despite the fact that the risk of an oil spill in Arctic waters is quite high, and there is no technology and very little capacity to clean up such a spill in the Arctic's icy conditions.

polar bears

A blow-out like the one that recently despoiled waters off the coast of Australia would leave oil in the waters off the coast of America's Arctic, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for decades, likely killing whales, seals, fish and birds and turning irreplaceable spawning and feeding grounds into an ecological wasteland. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen noted in a recent Senate committee field hearing in Alaska that the lack of capacity to clean up a spill in the Arctic could spell disaster for the Arctic's pristine waters. With the risk of a large oil spill estimated at 40 percent in the Chukchi Sea alone, this is a risk we can't afford to take.

Oil and gas drilling would simply make things worse for polar bears and other wildlife - as well as for the Inupiat people and other Alaska Natives who depend on the Arctic's environment to survive. Pacific walrus, ice seals, beluga whales, gray whales, 100 species of fish, numerous sea birds and more, depend on the Arctic's sea ice environment to survive.

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In addition, the bowhead whale, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, could face dire impacts. The Inupiat people, who have lived off the bounty of the Arctic for thousands of years, depend on the bowhead whale to survive.
Despite what proponents of oil and gas development in Alaska are saying to the contrary, spills in Alaska occur frequently, and failures to detect and respond to spills are common. Yet there is no proven technology for cleaning up oil spills in these icy waters, and even small amounts of oil on a polar bear's fur could result in death.

As Secretary Salazar considers a series of decisions for America's Arctic and polar bears in the months ahead, please consider the realities of oil and gas development in the Arctic:

* Each year, an average of 450 oil and other toxic spills occur on Alaska's North Slope as a result of oil and gas activity. More than 45 different toxic substances, including acids classified as extremely hazardous substances, have been spilled during routine operations.

* Oil development activities have disturbed polar bears from maternity dens. With sea ice loss, more polar bears are expected to den onshore, thus increasing the likelihood of human-bear interactions and impacts similar to those observed with grizzly bears.

* Between 1996 and 2008, 5,895 spills occurred on Alaska's North Slope totaling more than 2.7 million gallons of toxic substances, more than 396,000 gallons of crude oil, 122,000 gallons of drilling muds, and more than 1 million gallons of process water.

* According to the National Academy of Sciences: "No current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters, especially in the presence of broken ice."[i]

* In addition to exaggerating safeguards and controls over oil spills, oil companies often downplay the impact of spills. For example, a spokesperson for Exxon commented that oil spills may have short term impacts, but over the long term "there is full recovery."[ii] In fact, the effect of an oil spill will depend on the amount and type of oil or other toxin spilled, where and when the spill occurs, and spill response.

* Spill impacts can persist for decades, as they have in Prince William Sound twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientific studies of the Exxon Valdez spill have also shown that oil is several hundred times more toxic than previously thought.


In the months ahead, as Secretary Salazar faces a series of decisions regarding America's Arctic, he has the opportunity to come up with a rigorous science-based plan for the Arctic that will ensure its survival - not its destruction. Numerous scientists, members of Congress, federal experts and the people who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years all agree, there must be a timeout on all leasing and drilling in the Arctic until a comprehensive plan based on sound science and traditional knowledge is developed to determine if, where, when, and how such activities would occur.

In addition, as one of the crown jewels of our National Wildlife Refuge System and as part of a balanced plan for the Arctic, the Obama administration should support wilderness protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to ensure it will have the strongest protection possible for generations to come. Only then will polar bears and all who depend on this national treasure be truly protected.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about the true risks of oil spills in Alaska and the threat increased activity poses to polar bears. Once again, please consider writing an editorial on this very important topic. You can find more information about the pervasiveness of spills and other facts about oil development in the Arctic here: http://wilderness.org/content/broken-promises-reality-big-oil-americas-arctic.

The Wilderness Society
1615 M St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 429-2608
www.wilderness.org

[i] National Research Council. 2003. Cumulative environmental effects of oil and gas activities on Alaska's North Slope. Washington DC: National Academies Press. P.15.

[ii] Arnold, Elizabeth. 2003. Valdez study reinforces fears about toxic spills. National Public Radio, All Things Considered.

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