Aug 8, 2012
Shell now has the green light
from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major
oil spill in the region.
The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of
wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas--stretches of open
water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead
whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of
productivity created by summer's constant daylight.
this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the
Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are
at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated
ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is
poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the
Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by
laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine
Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small
numbers of marine mammals to be "harassed" by industrial activities by
issuing the company an "incidental harassment authorization" or "letter of
So what, exactly, is allowed? According to the
government, Shell's plans will result in "Level B" harassment," which means
the activities have:
the potential to disturb a marine mammal or
marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral
patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing,
breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to
injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.
to the government documents, Shell's drilling activities would result in
harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals.
Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might
mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as
good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of
the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to
better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell's proposals more
A humorous website is drawing attention to the impact that
Shell's proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but
this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill
this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air,
argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and
loses control of its drill ship.
Obviously, a catastrophic oil spill
would have a horrible impact on Arctic ecosystems. In addition to that risk,
Shell's proposed drilling would cause air, water and noise pollution from
vessel traffic and drilling operations.
matter, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants will be released directly into
the air and water on which marine mammals depend. In addition, ice- breaking
and drilling will generate a substantial amount of noise that has the
potential to disrupt whales and other animals as they feed, nurse and
Instead of allowing Shell to harass and potentially harm
wildlife, our government should focus its attention on developing a vision
for the Arctic that is based on science, preparedness, and protecting the
health of Arctic ecosystems.
The American people deserve healthy
ocean ecosystems and affordable energy. Both are possible, but not without
planning and science. If we don't have the base knowledge of animals'
populations, how can we know the true effects of drilling in the Arctic?
The vibrancy and biodiversity of the Arctic ecosystem depend on these
choices, and we cannot allow the future of the Arctic Ocean to be dictated
by an oil company.