America’s Arctic Ocean, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, provides habitat for countless species of wildlife, is central to life in coastal communities, and plays an important role in regulating the world’s climate. Arctic Ocean ecosystems are largely intact and are habitat for iconic wildlife species, including whales, polar bears, walrus, seals and hundreds of species of birds. The Inupiat people who live in the region utilize healthy Arctic ecosystems for subsistence, which provides sustenance and cultural continuity. The Arctic Ocean is a critical part of the global climate system that acts much like an air conditioner for the rest of the planet, helping to regulate climate and weather.
This national treasure is in peril. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, bringing widespread impacts. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking.” At the same time, large, multinational corporations are pushing to develop these remote waters. The region is exposed to new interest in offshore drilling from the oil and gas industry, an expansion of shipping routes, and the potential for industrial fishing.
Shell Oil’s mishaps in 2012 – ranging from the failure of its oil spill containment dome to the grounding of its drill rig – proved just how difficult operating in the Arctic can be. Sub-zero temperatures, long periods of darkness, shifting ice floes and hurricane force winds make industrial activities incredibly risky. And there is no demonstrated way to clean up a major oil spill in these extreme conditions. Those dangers, combined with extremely limited infrastructure – the region has no deep-water ports and only a handful of small airports, and the nearest Coast Guard air station is approximately 1,000 miles away – provide a recipe for disaster. According to the National Research Council, the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic Ocean is a “significant liability” in the event of a large oil spill.
Oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic Ocean will cost us in another, equally important way: by adding to our climate emissions. Meaningful action to address global warming requires moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels. Moreover, drilling and its associated infrastructure pump pollution into the air, putting black soot directly onto the Arctic ice and further melting ice that is already at its lowest ever measured levels. Loss of sea ice cover in the Arctic accelerates warming in the region and is believed to be linked to extreme weather patterns all over the country, demonstrating that what happens in the Arctic impacts us all.
There is still a lot that is unknown about America’s Arctic Ocean. The federal agencies charged with managing the ocean’s values acknowledge a lack of information about the species that rely on it. Today, the government is rethinking the decision to sell leases in the Chukchi Sea. The Obama administration has the opportunity to move away from prior decisions to allow oil and gas activities in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and craft a vision for the Arctic region that accounts for changing climate, community needs and ocean health.
WHO WE ARE
We are a coalition of national organizations working to protect the Arctic Ocean and address the threats posed by greenhouse gas emissions and industrial activities. Our organizations are committed to ensuring that science, precaution and preparedness guide decisions about whether and under what conditions to allow industrial activities in the Arctic Ocean. Our elected and appointed officials must be stewards of important ocean resources. Companies should not be allowed to operate in America’s Arctic Ocean until and unless they prove that activities can be carried out safely, without harming the ocean ecosystem and accounting for extreme conditions and climate risks. America’s Arctic Ocean is a national treasure, and we will remain United for America’s Arctic.