Challenging the Arctic oil rush

Another day, another lawsuit: Alaskan natives and green activists have joined forces in a bid to slam the brakes on the Bush administration’s rush to permit oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea. According to their complaint, federal officials gave oil companies the go-ahead to use powerful acoustic devices to test for seismic activity - without waiting for legally mandated reports on the tests’ potential environmental impact.

The tests - which give a whole new meaning to the phrase “oil boom” - involve firing massive air-guns at the Arctic seabed, creating a noise ten times louder than a rocket launch. The din, which can carry for hundreds of miles, is repeated every 10 to 15 seconds, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

That can have a devastating impact on marine wildlife, particularly mammals like whales, walrus and seals: Nearby animals can be permanently deafened, and thousands more interrupt their feeding and migratory patterns to escape the noise. The Chukchi Sea - home to tens of thousands of marine mammals, including several endangered species of whale - is particularly vulnerable: Its bad weather and choppy waters can make it almost impossible for seismic survey ships to spot and steer clear of marine mammals.

None of that seems to have mattered to federal officials, though: They rubber-stamped the oil companies’ exploration plans without even waiting for the results from environmental impact assessments. Adding insult to injury, they also appear to have entirely ignored rules barring tests that are likely to seriously injure marine mammals or to impact on more than a handful of animals.

That’s hardly out of character for the Bush administration, of course: Oil companies were given access to the Chukchi Sea even after officials calculated that there was a 40 percent chance of a major oil spill, and that drilling would likely lead to between 750 and 1,000 smaller spills. Officials also scoffed at internal recommendations that development in the Chukchi Sea be shelved until at least 2012, and ignored the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim that more time was needed to assess the vulnerability of the region’s polar bears.

That adds up to a wider problem: With the clock running down on the Bush presidency, officials appear increasingly willing to cut corners in the headlong rush to open new areas to oil exploration. If that trend continues, we could be seeing plenty more lawsuits over the next few months.