Environmental and native Alaskan groups have sued the Bush Administration in an effort to stop some oil and gas exploration of the Arctic's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
British Petroleum and Shell Oil got federal permits for work off Alaska's north coast for seismic surveys there.
The suit alleges that the permits were granted without required reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, and that Shell's permission to "harass" seals and whales violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The lawsuit is the latest volley in a long-running battle over the best use of the nation's far northern territory. The sides have dug in more as the impact of global warming on the Arctic has become more obvious.
The Arctic has melted in unprecedented ways in recent years, and the Bush Administration has been petitioned to protect polar bears and other species with the Endangered Species Act. Listing the polar bear or other denizens of the Arctic would mean setting aside more land that is off-limits for oil and gas development.
The Arctic's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are sometimes called the Polar Bears Seas, and they support endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, gray whales, several seal species, Pacific walrus, polar bears, and about 100 fish species. Endangered humpback whales have begun to migrate into the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in recent years. Many of these species provide important subsistence resources to Native Alaskans.
The REDOIL Network, an Alaska Native grassroots organization that includes members of the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Gwich'in, Eyak, and Dena'ina Athabascan tribes, joined the suit.
"Oil operations will not just hurt our community 'Tikigaq' Point Hope, but will hurt all of the hunting communities," said Emma F. Kinneeveauk, Environmental Program Manager for the Native Village of Point Hope, a federally recognized tribal government. "If oil is found, there are going to be lots of ships going back and forth and this is going to interrupt the animals' migratory routes. They won't come around anymore. We hunters will have a hard time finding the food we are used to eating; it is going to hurt our way of life."
Here's how Earth Justice describe the seismic exploration:
Seismic work involves the use of underwater air guns that generate extremely loud noise a single blast is 10 times louder than a rocket launch, and the blasts occur every 10 to 15 seconds for days, weeks and even months at a time. These sounds carry through the water for hundreds of miles and have been known to cause permanent hearing loss in marine mammals. They can disrupt their feeding, migration, social bonding, predator avoidance, and have been associated with stranded whales. They also can interfere with Native Alaskans' ability to hunt for these subsistence food sources, particularly the bowhead whale.
Under the provisions of the MMPA, NMFS may authorize the incidental taking by harassment of only "small numbers" of marine mammal population stock. NMFS, however, authorized Shell to harass huge numbers of marine mammals over 40,000 in total including nearly 40 percent of the population of beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea and more than 20 percent of the endangered bowhead whales that feed and calve in the Polar Bear Seas.
Although oil companies are required to use shipboard observers to monitor the surface of the water and order seismic air guns to shut down when marine mammals come close enough to suffer physical injury, recent experience shows that these measures are inadequate. Monitoring reports from 2006 and 2007 show that scores of seals, several whales (gray and bowhead) and about 50 walrus suffered exposure to extremely high noise levels before air guns were shut down. Many more animals may have been exposed during rough seas, fog, and rain when they are hard to spot, or during periods of darkness when observers were not on watch.
This summer and fall as many as five companies are expected to conduct various types of seismic surveys using nine seismic source vessels that will fire air guns around the clock. This is the highest level of seismic operations seen yet -- in 2006, three companies operated in the Chukchi Sea.
Last September as part of separate litigation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary injunction blocking Shell from drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea because of risks to polar bears and endangered whales. A final ruling in that case is expected any day. The plaintiffs' complaint was based, in part, on the lack of information about wildlife populations and habitat that would enable adequate evaluation of effects on bowhead whale migration and feeding. Since that ruling, Shell has conducted aerial surveys and discovered that approximately one-third of the total population of bowhead whales feeds in that area off the north coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.