More than 400 scientists from the U.S. and 20 other countries have signed a strongly worded letter urging the Obama administration to defer offshore oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic Ocean until research can adequately assess potential risks to fragile marine ecosystems.
"The Arctic Ocean is our last opportunity to prevent damage to a pristine environment that will be a legacy to our children," said Henry Huntington, science director for the Pew Environment Group's Arctic program. "We must stop and do the thorough research that is needed to protect this special place that is already stressed by climate change."
The scientists are asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reconsider a five-year oil and gas leasing plan that opens up virtually the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean to such development. They say the decision was made without sufficient scientific understanding of the environmental consequences for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and lacked full consultation with indigenous residents.
“We still have a chance to do it right in the Arctic. All we're really asking is that for once we look before we leap,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana and former National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration research chemist.
That means taking a precautionary, science-based approach to oil and gas development, including assessing environmental impacts before issuing permits, sustained monitoring and comprehensive planning to determine the best way to proceed, the scientists say.
Offshore oil and gas drilling poses major risks to marine mammals, sea birds and fish from chronic habitat degradation caused by oil spills, noise, bottom disturbance and pollution. Adequate technology does not exist to clean up oil spills in broken ice, a very real danger should such development go ahead.
Climate change has caused the Arctic to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, resulting in a rapid retreat of sea ice and profound ecological changes. Ice-dependent species such as walrus, polar bears and ice seals are losing their platform for hunting and reproduction while food sources are declining.
"We don't know enough yet about how iconic mammals like the bowhead whales, walrus and polar bears would be affected by the noise, pollution, and traffic related to widespread offshore oil and gas drilling," said Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington. "Doing appropriate research before making decisions about such development will help protect these special Arctic species for future generations."
Public comment on the proposed five-year oil and gas leasing plan closes Sept.21.
Read the full letter to the President (PDF).