Green groups protest Arctic oil plan

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The U.S. government will open up nearly 46,000 square miles off Alaska’s northwest coast to petroleum leases next month, a decision condemned by environmental groups that contend northern marine mammals will be harmed, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, Jan. 2.

According to the AP, the Minerals Management Agency planned the sale in the Chukchi Sea without taking into account changes in the Arctic brought on by global warming and proposed insufficient protections for polar bears, walrus, whales and other species that could be harmed by drilling rigs or spills, the groups say.

Pamela A. Miller, Arctic coordinator with Northern Alaska Environmental Center, told the AP the lease sale — in an area slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania — was planned without information as basic as the polar bear and walrus populations. The lease sale is among the largest acreage offered in the Alaska region.

“The Minerals Management Service is required to have preleasing baseline data sufficient to determine the post-leasing impacts of the oil and gas activities that will occur,” Miller told the AP. “They simply do not have that.”

The MMS — a branch of the Interior Department — announced it would hold a lease sale Feb. 6 in Anchorage for the ocean floor on the outer continental shelf of the Chukchi Sea. It would be the first federal OCS oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea since 1991. The agency estimates it contains 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recoverable natural gas.

MMS director Randall Luthi told the AP the agency took steps to protect wildlife. “MMS funds a robust environmental studies program to monitor the effects of industry activity in the OCS, including more than 40 ongoing Arctic-specific studies,” Luthi told the news agency. “Following up on a workshop attended by over 100 scientists and stakeholders, we are inaugurating a new suite of research for the Chukchi Sea to further monitor marine mammals, other communities, hydrocarbons and subsistence uses.”

The sale is backed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and community and tribal leaders, Luthi told the AP. “We believe our decision is a good balance and will allow companies to explore this intriguing frontier area while still protecting the resources important to the coastal residents,” he said.