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Environmentalists believe sanctuary failing to protect polar bears

By Lucy Brake - 17 Jan 2011 10:22:1 GMT
Environmentalists believe sanctuary failing to protect polar bears

The Centre for Biological Diversity believes that the US Interior Department has allowed harmful oil and gas developments to go ahead and as a result has significantly damaged the polar bear habitat in Alaska.

A sanctuary covering more than 480,000 square kilometres around the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in Alaska was designated to specifically protect an important habitat reserve for the polar bears. In a move that reaffirms plans created during Bush's presidency, the Interior Department are seriously weighting up a proposal by Shell Oil to drill in this sanctuary.

"Unfortunately, Interior seems profoundly confused about whether to actually protect polar bear critical habitat or sacrifice it to oil companies," said Rebecca Noblin, attorney for the Centre for Biological Diversity.

Polar bears rely on the sea ice for their very survival. With the majority of climate modellers and forecasters predicting that the loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean continuing and the possibility that the Arctic Ocean might even be ice free in summer by 2030 or possibly even sooner, the future does not look bright for the polar bears.

The Centre for Biological Diversity is particularly concerned that the actions the US Government are considering approving will damage and destroy the polar bears critical habitat. Noblin believes that the daily activities required by the offshore oil industry, such as movement of vehicles and vessels, seismic testing and drilling will all contribute to the destruction of this important environment. She is also concerned that a major oil spill in this unique environment would be catastrophic.

The oil industry provides over 90 per cent of the general revenue for the state of Alaska. This means there is significant pressure on the need to approve and allow new oil projects and developments. As the onshore oil reserves in Alaska diminish, the state is looking out to sea for future revenues and keeping the trans-Alaska pipeline full of oil. The state is claiming that the models on climate change are not reliable and that the polar bear populations are not at threat.

Noblin is in no doubt that the latest oil development proposal in Alaska has major implications for the polar bears: "Given that it is impossible to clean up an oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic, if Secretary Salazar ultimately approves drilling in polar bear critical habitat he will have demonstrated that all his promises of reform following the Gulf disaster ultimately amount to nothing”.