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'Forever As Wilderness': Obama Bans Oil Drilling in Arctic Walrus Habitat


February 13, 2015
Dan Joling / Associated Press & the Staff of the Goldman Environmental Prize

A stretch of Arctic coast, where thousands of Pacific walrus gather to feed and raise pups, has received new protections from the Obama administration that has ruled it a biological hot spot that is now off-limits to future oil drilling. Alaska Gwich'in tribal leader Sarah James praised the announcement. "In our language we call the coastal plain the Sacred Place Where Life Begins..... To us, this is a human rights issue. We have the right to continue our own way of life, and we are so thankful for Obama's decision."

http://www.usnews.com/news/science/news/articles/2015/02/11/oil-drilling-banned-in-arctic-area-that-attracts-walrus

Oil Drilling Banned in Arctic Walrus Habitat
Alaska leaders decry US ban on oil drilling in
Arctic Ocean area where walrus feed, raise pups

Dan Joling / Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (February 11, 2015) -- A plateau on the Arctic Ocean floor, where thousands of Pacific walrus gather to feed and raise pups, has received new protections from the Obama administration that recognize it as a biological hot spot and mark it off-limits to future oil drilling.

But the announcement from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell triggered an uproar from Alaska leaders, angry that the federal government was making a decision that they said would harm the state's economy.

"This administration has effectively declared war on Alaska," US Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

Hanna Shoal rises from the shallow Chukchi Sea and teems with plankton, clams and marine worms that attract walrus and bearded seals. The remote area lies 80 miles off the state's northwest coast, beyond even sparsely populated subsistence whale hunting towns such as Barrow, the northernmost community in the US

Federal estimates, however, show that the Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and many Alaska leaders are eager to begin drilling in the area to create jobs and fund state government projects and services.

About 90 percent of Alaska state revenue comes from oil taxes or fees, and with the price drop of nearly $60 per barrel since April, the state faces a $3.5 billion budget deficit next year. Leaders in Alaska want to find new drilling opportunities as a way to offset those losses.

Jewell's move late last month, adding Hanna Shoal to four other Arctic Ocean areas that won't be offered for future oil lease sales, came just two days after President Barack Obama declared he would seek wilderness protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including its coastal plain, which holds an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil.

The back-to-back announcements hit a familiar nerve for Murkowski and others, who say the federal government frequently makes decisions that are bad for state's economy. The Obama administration wants to preserve Alaska like a "nice little snow globe," Murkowski said.

The announcements change very little for current oil exploration. The newly removed section covers about 2,500 square miles. Meanwhile, more than 184,000 square miles of Arctic Ocean territory remain available for future oil leases and exploration.

Also, Alaska officials have failed to get drill rigs onto the ANWR coastal plain for three decades, under presidents from both parties. The president cannot designate wilderness areas in the refuge, and cannot open it to drilling; only Congress has that authority.

Environmental groups bitterly oppose Arctic Ocean drilling and contend oil companies cannot clean potential spills. They applauded the removal from future sales of Hanna Shoal, where the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has spent about $10 million on studies in the last three years.

Researchers say the shoal, a 30- by 100-mile area, rises from the shallow continental shelf like the top half of a football. Its physical properties interrupt ocean currents to creating eddies where plankton, algae and other organic materials swirl and fall, nourishing bottom feeders that are in turn eaten by walrus and seals.

"The physics are driving the biology," said Dr. Ken Dunton, chief scientist for the Hanna Shoal Ecosystem Study.

The shoal rises about halfway up the water column, said Thomas Weingartner, professor of physical oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and seawater freezes over the plateau each winter, expelling salt. The salt sinks and mixes with water lower in the column, creating very cold, dense, salty water. Scientists call it "winter water."

In summer, warmer water flowing north through the Bering Strait hits the dense winter water and swirls around it. The cold, dense, salty water not only creates giant eddies to trap plankton, it can retain ice floes longer than other parts of the Chukchi, giving walrus a platform from which to dive and raise young.

"The winter water stays in that area for a good deal of the year, if not the entire year," Weingartner said. "It's only slowly replaced."

Walrus are drawn to the shoal even when ice melts above it, researcher Chad Jay of the US Geological Survey said. Some make a 300-mile round trip to feed in the area. "They felt that area was important enough to make that trip," Jay said.

The shoal is incredibly rich biologically and important habitat, Jewell said. "Like Bristol Bay," she said, "there are some places too special to drill."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.



Forever as Wilderness:
Praise for Obama's Move to Protect the Arctic

The Staff of the Goldman Environmental Prize

(February 4, 2015) -- The Obama administration recently asked congress to increase federal protection for millions of acres within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The White House is seeking "wilderness" level protection for 12 of the 19 million acres that make up the refuge. Wilderness status is the highest level of federal protection available for public lands and would prohibit a range of activities, including oil and gas drilling.

"Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place -- pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it's very fragile," President Obama said in a video.

ANWR was created under President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and ever since then there has been conflict over how to manage the refuge, especially its significant petroleum reserves.

In 2002, Sarah James was awarded the Goldman Prize as part of a trio of Gwich'in tribal leaders, who defended ANWR from oil drilling, protecting the heart of the refuge's wildlife habitat and coastal plain.

James released this statement on the White House's proposal:
Last month, President Obama asked Congress to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain from oil and gas drilling, so that it may remain forever as wilderness.

This area is world famous for caribou, polar bears, wolves and musk-ox, and hundreds of different birds. In our language we call the coastal plain "the Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

The Gwich'in are caribou people. Caribou from the Porcupine herd are born there every year, and have fed our people for countless generations. Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten our people. The mountains are so close to the ocean there, the cows and calves have nowhere else to go.

To us, this is a human rights issue. We have the right to continue our own way of life, and we are so thankful for Obama's decision.

We still have a long way to go, but for now, please join us in thanking this President for his support for conservation and human rights in the Arctic.

Mah'si-choo,

Sarah James, Arctic Village
Chair, Gwich'in Steering Committee

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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