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Big Oil Demands the Right to Kill Polar Bears


The Marine Mammal Protection Act—which bars hunting, killing, capture, or harassment of any marine mammal, and the trade in their body parts, within the United States—recently turned 40. But it’s long been treated as past its prime. Now, at the behest of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, it’s being used to fashion a regulation enabling “incidental” and “insignificant” harms to polar bears and Pacific walruses, during exploratory drilling, seismic surveys, platform and pipeline surveys, and a general sallying forth to pillage an ecosystem on the brink, beginning on 11 June 2013.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s members, for whom the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service will, by special regulation, arrange this, are: Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, Apache Corporation, BP Exploration Alaska Inc., Chevron Corporation, ENI Petroleum, ExxonMobil Production Company, Flint Hills Resources, Inc., Hilcorp Alaska, LLC, Marathon Oil Company, Petro Star Inc., Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska, Inc., Repsol, Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc., Statoil, Tesoro Alaska Company and XTO Energy.

This “Incidental take of polar bears and Pacific walruses in the Chukchi/Bering Seas and adjacent coast of Alaska during oil and gas industry activities for 5 years” ought to trigger the full Environmental Impact Statement process that federal law imposes on major federal actions with significant environmental repercussions. Instead, the Interior Department is treating this as an insignificant regulation.

It’s bad enough that the Marine Mammal Protection Act has been diluted through amendments to allow the harming of marine mammals—even individuals of endangered or threatened species, such as polar bears, or those “warranted” for Endangered Species Act listing, like walruses—if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines the harm affects small numbers, has a “negligible impact” on species, and has no “unmitigable adverse impact” on subsistence use. But such is not the case here.

The government, in its draft Environmental Assessment, acknowledges the unpredictable effects of spills and waste on marine mammals already in peril. An example scenario, one of several detailed in the assessment, is that an oiled walrus calf will be “unrecognizable to its mother either by sight or by smell, and be abandoned. However,” continues the government, “the greater threat may come from an oiled calf that is unable to swim away from the contamination and a mother that would not leave without the calf, resulting in the potential exposure of both animals.”

And sea animals normally caught by these animals as prey, the government acknowledges, might die immediately. Even greater is the potential harm caused by well blowouts.

The government says the operations’ effects will be mitigated. But the last thing a nursing walrus or ice-seeking polar bear needs is “mitigation” by way if “observation vessels” in their space.

And just as extinct animals can never be brought back, ice is irreplaceable once broken. Underscoring the urgent need for a precautionary stance is the startling NASA-sponsored discovery of a large algal bloom below the ice of the Chukchi Sea. This completely changes what we know about Arctic ecosystems, and it’s a stark sign of climate change in the far north.

“The effect would benefit bottom-feeding species, to the detriment of species that feed in the water column,” writes Max McClure for The Stanford Report, continuing: “And, as algal blooms are able to occur earlier in the year, animals that depend on timing their behavior to ‘pulses’ in algal productivity may be left out in the cold.”

Polar Bear. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Polar Bear. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Moreover, the very presence of ice deflects the greenhouse effect that will otherwise change our planet’s climate. A warming Alaska is a land where native villages are disappearing outright under the steadily melting Arctic, where forests are increasingly susceptible to bark beetles, which in turn threaten the balance of nature on the land. Ice itself, as things turn out, might be more valuable to any and all animal species, including our own, than oil or any commodity.

Should you be moved to write to officials who ought to halt this plan, here are their addresses. Please copy them onto your blog or website and encourage a groundswell of opposition. Press these officials to:

* Consider the cumulative hazards posed by this regulation to Pacific walruses and polar bears;

* Consider the greenhouse effect of sending more vessels into the Arctic region;

* Note the sought-after oil and natural gas themselves are key factors in climate disruption’s anthropogenic causes;

* Consider the disastrous global repercussions of breaking up any more ice;

*  Stop the misuse of Environmental Assessments to foster the normal course of oil and gas business when we need a moratorium on Arctic prospecting instead.

But if you say nothing else, please simply insist that the federal government use the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect marine mammals and their ecosystems.

Ken Salazar, Secretary

U.S. Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20240

Via e-mail: feedback@ios.doi.gov


Sarah Conn, Field Supervisor

Fish and Wildlife Service

U.S. Department of the Interior

101 12th Avenue, Room 110

Fairbanks, Alaska 99701

Via e-mail: ak_fisheries@fws.gov


Diane Bowen, National Marine Mammal Coordinator

Fish and Wildlife Service

U.S. Department of the Interior

Room 840, 4401 North Fairfax Drive

Arlington, Virginia 22203

Via e-mail: diane_bowen@fws.gov


Nancy Sutley, Chair

White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)

722 Jackson Place, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20503

Via e-mail: FN-CEQ-OpenGov@ceq.eop.gov

(Note the Council’s position that federal agencies should determine the climate impacts of proposed federal actions subject to the National Environmental Policy Act.)

Lee Hall, Legal VP for Friends of Animals, submitted public comments (joined by WildEarth Guardians, under Regulation Identifier Number 1018-AY67), to oppose the regulation by which the Fish & Wildlife Service would permit fuel companies to harm marine mammals over a five-year course of commercial oil and gas prospecting. Lee is a candidate for Vermont Law School’s LL.M. in environmental law (2014); and the author of On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth (2010). Follow Lee on Twitter:  @Animal_Law



Lee Hall is an author of  On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth and several other books and articles on animal rights, a contingent professor of environmental, immigration, and animal law, and a contingent employee of the U.S. Postal Service. Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law 

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