Environmental Groups Challenge 'Double Jeopardy' for Arctic Walruses

An environmental coalition is suing to protect walruses in the Arctic from drilling operations, which could further threaten their dwindling habitats. (Photo: Heather Thorkelson/flickr/cc)

Environmental Groups Challenge 'Double Jeopardy' for Arctic Walruses

Coalition challenges federal rule allowing oil companies to harm or kill mammals in Chuchki Sea

A group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday to challenge a rule that would allow energy companies to harm mammals in the Arctic while drilling for oil next year.

The coalition, which includes environmental and conservation groups like Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing firms like Shell to drill and explore in areas in the Chuchki Sea with high walrus populations--vital spaces that are dwindling as climate change continues to melt sea ice in the Arctic, the coalition says.

Their complaint pertains to a regulation that allows for "the incidental take of walruses in connection with oil and gas activities." Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the term "take" is broadly defined and means "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine animal." More specifically, harassment can refer to "torment" or "annoyance," or "causing disruption of behavioral patterns... migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering."

The coalition noted on Monday that the rule contradicts the Service's own admission that these kinds of operations could have widespread consequences for walruses in crucial Chuchki Sea areas like the Hannah Shoal, a 30-mile shelf off the coast of northwest Alaska. The coalition notes that operations could result in chasing away walruses from natural feeding habitats, triggering stampedes, or harming them with seismic blasts. It also notes that drilling also carries the risk of catastrophic oil spills.

Walruses depend on ice caps for resting, raising their young, feeding, and avoiding predators, the lawsuit (pdf) states. Allowing drilling operations in these vulnerable areas further threatens their survival.

"Walruses are already under tremendous stress from climate change," said Earthjustice attorney Eric Grafe. "[T]heir sea ice home is literally melting away. Without adequate analysis, the challenged rules would add to walruses' woes by allowing drilling and risking oil spills in the areas most important for food and resting."

The lawsuit comes as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (OEM) publishes a draft of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), in which the bureau slightly raised its estimate of recoverable oil from companies that are primed to start explorations.

By raising the estimate, the bureau more accurately reflects the potential effects or damage that oil drilling can have in those areas. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that the OEM's original estimate of 1 billion barrels was too low, which in turn underestimated the risk of an oil spill.

Approval of the new draft, which calculates that 4.3 billion barrels are recoverable, could allow companies like Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other companies to start drilling operations in both the Beaufort and Chuchki Seas.

But the coalition says the threat to wildlife and the environment is too great. "Shell is putting the Arctic walrus in double jeopardy. Their world is melting because of oil companies' greedy thirst for more fossil fuels, and now their home will could be under imminent threat from a Shell spill," said Greenpeace Arctic campaign specialist John Deans.

"The last thing Arctic walruses need is dirty drilling in the middle of their most important habitat," said Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity.

In October, a group of 35,000 Pacific walruses were forced to a small strip of shore on the coast of northwest Alaska, which biologists said was a direct result of global warming.

Margaret Williams, managing director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic program, said at the time: "The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change."

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