Polar Distress

With the clock running out in January, the Bush administration, ignoring the concerns of its own scientists and possibly breaking federal law, looks to open a vital stretch of Arctic habitat to offshore oil and gas drilling. So

Early each spring pregnant bowhead whales, insulated by up to a foot and a half of fat that helps them withstand frigid Arctic waters, pass north through the Bering Strait and pause in their annual, 3,500-mile migration to give birth to one-ton calves. Following cracks in the melting ice pack off the north coast of Alaska, these bowheads feed on the riot of tiny marine invertebrates that erupts as the returning sunlight sparks a reawakening of an elaborate food chain.

An evolutionary parade swirls alongside the ice leads, from the tiny zooplankton to the baleen whales that miraculously turn krill into life-sustaining blubber. Walrus herds, sometimes numbering in the thousands, use the same moving ice edge like smart shoppers at a sale. Diving from ice platforms, the walruses seek a trove of clams and mussels in the shallow waters below, hauling themselves back onto the ice to rest between feeding forays. Ice-dependent seals—ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals—also trail this floating ice ark, devouring Arctic cod that feed on small shrimplike copepods that dine on phytoplankton.

Almost like a cartoon version of the food chain, with one small fish being eaten by a bigger fish, then that by an even bigger one, the seals in turn fall prey to the lurking top predator cruising this same floating Arctic carnival: the polar bear.


These species and many others, including red-throated and yellow-billed loons and waterfowl including king and spectacled eiders, migrate through or stop to feed or molt in and around a watery place on the globe that cartographers know as the Chukchi Sea. Situated north and west of Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of the United States, the Chukchi is also a focal point for yet another conservation battle along the Alaskan frontier. A recent Bush administration decision to open up offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea repeats a now-familiar tilt toward accelerating domestic oil and gas production on public land, no matter what the ecological costs may be.

But this time, by opening up a marine area the size of Pennsylvania to energy development with a controversial lease sale this past February, the Bush administration likely broke federal law, ignored Native Alaskan concerns, censored and disregarded the government’s own scientists, and mobilized a national coalition from the conservation community to mount a legal challenge that will be resolved in the courts or Congress—or possibly by the next President. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, who unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to delay the sale, called the Bush administration’s approach “regulatory lunacy and a blatant disregard for moral responsibility.”

The Chukchi leases appear to be part of a final, concerted push by the Bush administration to open up as much public land as possible to energy development before leaving office. The timing of the lease was especially suspect, since it occurred immediately after the administration postponed a decision about whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act—and before a thorough environmental review that would include the effects of development on an area that’s home to half the U.S. polar bear population. “They’ve got the clock running and their eye on January,” says Stan Senner, executive director of Alaska Audubon. “They’re going to squeeze in everything they possibly can, and there’s no pretense of balance.”

To marine biologists, the Chukchi Sea supports a remarkably rich concentration of offshore Arctic biodiversity. This region is a relatively shallow stretch of water that lies between the Bering Strait to the south, the Beaufort Sea on the east, and the vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean to the north, where waters quickly become too deep and cold to support much life. The Chukchi is, in effect, a last-chance sanctuary, where many of the planet’s most charismatic marine mammals, including polar bears and walruses, spend part of their annual cycle of foraging, giving birth, and storing up enough calories to survive and reproduce. In spring, common and thick-billed murres funnel north through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea to reach cliffside nests in such places as Cape Lisburne, from which they take advantage of the tremendous burst of Arctic marine productivity once the high seas are free of ice for the season. “This is the most biologically productive area in the Arctic Ocean,” says Lee Cooper, a researcher currently at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, who has spent more than 20 years studying the Chukchi.

This region, like much of the circumpolar Arctic, has been undergoing profound ecological changes in recent years, as global warming has affected the Arctic much more dramatically than it has temperate latitudes. Researchers have already documented some of the resulting ecological ripples and fear that bringing industry in will compound the stress of ice-dependent species already coping with retreating summer ice cover, which in 2007 reached its lowest levels since satellite observations began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Environmentalists have waged a two-decades-long campaign to stop oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an onshore area to the east of the Chukchi. But some biologists believe the Chukchi leases are far more problematic, since offshore drilling presents greater challenges and dangers than stationary rigs on land. Lori Quakenbush, the Arctic marine mammals program leader for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says that with offshore drilling “there are a lot more risks involved,” including the potential for catastrophic oil spills, the harassment of animals through seismic exploration and floating industrial activities, the increase in boat traffic along the same small areas of open water (called leads) that many animals use, and the impacts on Inupiaq subsistence hunters if animals move farther offshore. In the Chukchi, she says, “there are way more species and way more numbers of each species” than in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, elsewhere along the Arctic coastal plain, or even in the neighboring Beaufort Sea. “That ramps up the concern.”

The Chukchi leasing decision embodies what is possibly the ultimate environmental irony of our time: It is a fight to protect a region already affected by global warming from more energy development, which will only exacerbate those effects once that oil and gas is drilled and burned. With its decision to expedite the contentious Chukchi lease, the Bush administration chose to quite literally add more fuel to the global warming fire.


For the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees offshore leases, the biological trove of cetaceans and crustaceans, pinnipeds and ursidae off Alaska’s north coast is simply known as Chukchi Sea Sale 193. Last February 6, at the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage, representatives from Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other energy companies packed a meeting room to roll some really big dice in a high-stakes game for the sale. Since this was the first lease sale in the Chukchi in 17 years (those previous leases were relinquished or expired without any oil or gas production), excitement ran high. Armed with proprietary information gleaned from floating seismic sounders they had deployed to survey the ocean floor for telltale signs of hydrocarbons, company representatives submitted sealed bids with potentially several hundred billion dollars of profits at stake.

For years oil companies had shied away from seeking permission to drill in Alaska’s offshore areas for several reasons, including the expense of operating in such a challenging environment and the relatively low price of oil. But as predictions of an ice-free Arctic summer moved toward becoming a reality and oil first topped $100 a barrel the month before the sale, companies like Shell took another look and liked what they saw, especially in the lame-duck days of an administration led by oilmen George Bush and Dick Cheney. Leaving little to chance, Shell, a leading player in the Chukchi oil sale, hired a phalanx of former Bush administration officials as well as some Inupiaq leaders to help pave the way, including Paul Stang, former MMS regional supervisor for leasing and environment; Camden Toohey, former special assistant to the Interior Secretary for Alaska Affairs; and George Ahmaogak, former North Slope Borough (NSB) mayor. (The NSB encompasses eight Inupiaq communities.)

Presiding over the sale, Randall Luthi, director of the MMS, opened the auction with an edge of anticipation—not just from the energy companies set to bid tens of millions of dollars for hundreds of nine-square-mile sections but also for protestors gathered to express their opposition. In preparing for the sale, Luthi stated the Bush administration creed that drilling for more domestic oil would reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil at a time when worldwide demand is growing and America’s energy use is increasing. He insisted that environmental safeguards would be in place, and noted that some areas close to shore had been placed off-limits. What did go on the auction block, Luthi said, was “one of the last energy frontier areas in North America.”

When the day was through, companies had submitted sealed bids totaling $2.6 billion for the rights to oil and gas under nearly 30 million acres of seabed more than 50 miles from the Alaska coast along the outer continental shelf. If any oil or gas were to be extracted, the federal government would receive 12.5 percent royalties for what the MMS has estimated might be as much as 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The state of Alaska would receive virtually no royalty payments, nor would the Alaska Native corporations.

Milling outside the library in minus-12-degree weather, members of the Point Hope community, which had joined a lawsuit contesting the lease, and other Inupiaq protestors held placards that read “Not in My Garden” and “Oil and Polar Bears Don’t Mix.” Steve Oomittuk, mayor of Point Hope City, said that his ancestors “have hunted and depended on the animals that migrate through the Chukchi Sea for thousands of years.” Even in the Internet age, he said in a statement, Inupiaq communities still depend on subsistence hunting. “This is our garden, our identity, our livelihood. Without it we would not be who we are today.”

Inupiaq opposition to the sale hardly came from a knee-jerk, anti-oil position. In fact, their communities have mostly been supportive of onshore oil development, in part because those oil revenues flow into state trusts and Native corporation coffers. Those funds are used to build and sustain infrastructure and social benefits, such as schools, health clinics, university scholarships, and dividends for shareholders in Alaska’s Native corporations. On top of that, Inupiaq leaders have long been suspicious of environmental activists from Anchorage or the Lower 48, in part because of the “Save the Whales” campaigns that once threatened their subsistence hunt.

But the current play to extend onshore energy development into the ocean prompted much of the Inupiaq community to draw a line on the shore. For each of the Native communities along the North Slope—Point Hope, Wainwright, Point Lay, Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik—the spring and fall bowhead whale hunt remains a cultural cornerstone as well as an ongoing key to survival for many who rely on a seasonal catch of fish, seal, walrus, and whale meat for cultural and alimentary sustenance.


The rhythms of arctic life—both human and non-human—thrum in concert with the seasons. In February, shortly after the sun rises above the horizon in most North Slope communities, Inupiaq whalers begin preparations for the spring bowhead hunt, readying their traditional bearded seal- or walrus-skin boats, called umiak. Women sew boat covers of seal or walrus hide onto the wooden frames using thread made from dried caribou sinew, waterproofing their stitches by rubbing them with seal or whale oil and painting them white so they blend in with the ice. The men on the 50 or so whaling crews from a dozen communities that have traditional rights to catch bowheads prepare their harpoons and camping gear. By April the spring hunt usually begins. After the hunt, these communities celebrate their success with blanket tosses and traditional feasts while whaling captains divvy up the muktuk, that same life-sustaining whale blubber, and meat among the villagers.

Inupiaq resistance to the Chukchi drilling leases centers on the threats to an ancient whaling culture. On January 1 the Native village of Point Hope (the westernmost of the seven coastal Inupiaq villages in the NSB), the city of Point Hope, the Inupiaq community of Arctic Slope, and the Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) network joined with national conservation organizations in a legal challenge to the leases. The lawsuit, which was filed by 13 plaintiffs, including Audubon, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, claims that the expedited environmental review process minimized the potential environmental consequences of oil and gas spills and used outdated or insufficient data. The suit also charges that the process ignored existing data suggesting that animals like the spectacled eider, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, would suffer from offshore drilling.

In December 2006, during that review, Edward A. Itta, the current NSB mayor, wrote an unusually strong letter to the MMS. It concluded that oil and gas leasing was simply too problematic to support, given the lack of good environmental data, the dangers of drilling remote areas in harsh conditions, and the “failure” of the industry to show it could respond to oil spills. “It remains our strong belief that oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development should not occur in the Chukchi Sea,” Itta argued.

His concerns reflect a widespread sentiment among scientific researchers like Quakenbush, the Alaska Fish and Game Department marine mammals expert, who insists that it’s virtually impossible to gauge potential impacts when there is very little research to draw on—and when the region is changing so fast. She and others have been using satellite telemetry to track the movements of bowhead whales and other species. Their data indicate that the Chukchi is chock-full of animals—bowheads, beluga whales, polar bears, walruses, and various migratory bird species—that migrate through during the spring and fall.

Data that does exist about the long-term ecological consequences of oil spills, like $400 million worth of research completed in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, was virtually disregarded, says University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist Rick Steiner. So was research regarding the threat of invasive species carried in on construction and operations traffic. “Anything that would challenge the outcome or slow it down was marginalized or completely ignored,” he says. Leaked e-mails from agency scientists involved with the Chukchi leases confirmed a pattern of intimidation, secrecy, and suppression of information that might have delayed or stopped the leases, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.–based group that defends federal whistleblowers.

The MMS’s own public estimates for potential calamity ought to be sounding a loud alarm. In the final environmental impact statement (EIS) that governed the Chukchi lease sale, the government forecast a 33 percent to 51 percent chance of a large spill in the Chukchi. (By contrast, says Steiner, the government had predicted that an Exxon Valdez–type spill would occur once every 241 years; it happened the 12th year after tankers started sailing from Valdez.) “If a large spill were to occur, the analysis identifies potentially significant impacts to bowhead whales, polar bears, essential fish habitat, marine and coastal birds, subsistence hunting, and archaeological sites,” said the EIS.

The MMS also acknowledges that walruses, a species that is notoriously sensitive and has been known to stampede one another to death when disturbed, would be harmed by development. Furthermore, bowhead whales are susceptible to damage from seismic activity. Threatened eider species could face potentially significant mortality. Oil spills, in particular, would cause a slew of devastating effects that would ripple through the food chain. In the final EIS, wrote the MMS, “There is a high potential for marine and coastal birds to experience disturbance and habitat alteration.”

Even the research that the MMS quoted is being mischaracterized, says the University of Maryland’s Cooper. While researching a recent application for a National Science Foundation grant to study the Chukchi, Cooper reviewed the MMS materials only to discover that the federal agency was using outdated information and had glossed over recent research, like that done by Cooper and his colleagues. For example, the scientists had discovered a “submarine canyon” in the Chukchi that is a forest of corals, tunicates (filter feeders like sea squirts), and vitally important benthic marine life. “They’re working with very old information,” says Cooper.  “If people knew what was on the bottom there, they would fence it out.”

Nevertheless, the agency’s conclusion was one of the federal government’s most unfortunate acronyms: FONSI, or “finding of no significant impact.”


Offshore oil activity, even in relatively benign environments, has resulted in 117 spills in outer continental shelf waters since 2000 alone, according to MMS data. Offshore oil platforms have a checkered history even in more moderate seas below the Arctic Circle. Last December StatoilHydro, a Norwegian company that won some of the Chukchi leases, announced that 25,000 barrels of oil had spilled at one of its North Sea oilfields. The standard practices of reacting to oil spills at sea by burning them, by spreading dispersants, or by mechanical recovery would be nearly impossible in the icy conditions that still exist during most of the Arctic year. “They don’t even begin to have the technology to clean up oil in an environment like the Chukchi Sea,” says Alaska Audubon’s Senner.

Scientists inside and outside federal agencies warn that increasing the floating human footprint from offshore rigs, seismic exploration, and more transport vessels may well push a reeling environment over the edge. Inserting tool pushers, roughnecks, roustabouts, mud engineers, derrick hands, geologists, and other oil platform workers into a world of stressed-out seals, worried walruses, and imperiled polar bears strikes many wildlife biologists and oceanographers as a singularly bad idea. Add to that the likelihood of oil spills in an icy, stormy clime, and ecologists warn of disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill—or worse.

Today the heralds of climate change have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Species are disappearing at a horrifying rate. And the United States’ leadership in environmental stewardship has been sorely tainted. These events in the “polar bear seas” thus raise concerns across the country.

Energy policy—especially support for renewable energy and greater conservation—will certainly become a 2008 campaign issue. Experts in and out of industry acknowledge that the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels will never be sated by domestic production. As the planet warms and the unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels become more apparent, it is likely that the cries to protect some of this country’s last undeveloped lands will only grow louder.

In the eyes of University of Alaska professor Steiner, however, the Chukchi sales represent “a worrisome new phase in our addiction for oil.” The dire need for the world to combat global warming by weaning itself from hydrocarbons is bound to bring up analogies to reckless junkies. Says Steiner, “We are at the desperate stage where we are accepting more and more risk to get the next fix.”