Oil in the Arctic

Things aren’t looking good for polar bears. Thanks to global warming, the sea-ice upon which they depend for hunting and breeding grounds is rapidly thawing; by some estimates, it could be gone altogether by the summer of 2012. Already, researchers say, some starving bears have been driven to cannibalism; with a quarter of the Arctic’s 19 bear populations already in decline, the US Geological Survey (USGS) predicts bear numbers could fall by a third by mid-century.

The Bush administration has responded to the polar crisis with a typically cynical one-two punch, paying lip service to the problem even as it moves to aggravate it. This week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is likely to declare polar bears a threatened species entitled to official protection; simultaneously, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) is moving to sell off a vast tract of the bears’ habitat for commercial oil exploration.


The massive sell-off, scheduled for February 6th, would affect a tract of the Alaskan seabed about the size of Pennsylvania - and, environmentalists fear, could prove the final straw for America’s iconic ice bears. Industrializing the Arctic would lead to massive increases in shipping, while the noise and seismic testing would place further strain on the vulnerable ecosystem. Worse still, conventional strategies for managing oil spills are all but useless in the Arctic’s frigid, icy waters - so any accidental leaks could have catastrophic consequences.

The MMS insists that it’s done all it can to protect the region’s wildlife - but environmental activists say it’s failed to gather even basic information about the size of the region’s bear population. That’s convenient: By refusing to gather proper baseline statistics, the MMS ensures that nobody can accurately gauge the environmental impact of its proposed oil project.

All this is hardly surprising; the MMS has long been in the pocket of the oil and mining industries. There are some signs, though, that others in Washington are less willing to bend over for Big Oil; by passing last month’s energy bill emphasizing alternative fuels, Congress has already signaled its skepticism about Bush’s drive to achieve energy independence through unchecked domestic drilling.

Now politicians in the House and Senate have joined environmental groups in asking Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to postpone the oil lease for three years, to ensure proper scientific scrutiny of the industry’s impact. Given Kempthorne’s record, it’s unlikely that he’ll allow himself to be swayed; still, the Sierra Club is running a petition to try to shame him into action. Sign up here.