Arctic In Danger

arctic-conservation-oil-gas-threatenedThe recent television program Frozen Planet demonstrates just how special and important the area known as the Arctic is by displaying its wildlife, plant life, and environment. The show also depicts how the area is threatened by climate change and human interference. Frozen Planet has helped contribute to breaking down many misconceptions about the Arctic, including the idea that it is a barren wasteland ready to exploit for oil drilling or that it is a distant, remote area that has no affect on the rest of the world and vice versa.

Unbeknownst to most, the Arctic truly is a place with abundant and diverse life forms that play an integral role in the ecological health of the entire world. There are wetlands, lakes, oceans, whales, polar bears, caribou, walruses, waterfowl, seals and a plethora of other unique life forms. Unfortunately, some do not see it this way, but as a vast, cold wasteland that contains secrets multitudes of oil. Such a viewpoint lends to exploitation.

Shell Oil has already begun sending ships towards the distant Arctic waters in order to exploit Alaska’s oil rich northern coast. Unfortunately, those waters are incredibly fragile and are home to dozens of species, including many threatened ones such as polar bears and endangered ones like the bowhead whale, walrus, seals, and birds. April 20th of this year marked the two-year anniversary of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is disturbing that the president is already considering drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Obviously, such a detrimental and dangerous process is not worth the gigantic risk. Not only would millions of wildlife be affected for the worse, but native communities that depend on the Arctic’s various ecosystems would also be devastated. More so, if an oil spill were to occur in the Arctic, cleanup would be nearly impossible given the conditions inherent to the Arctic, such as: twenty foot swells, persistent frozen sea conditions, hurricane force winds, and darkness for months out of the year. The region is also remote and inaccessible.

The Bureau of Land Management is usually the last defense against the exploitation of animals and nature. Yet, for the first time ever the Bureau of Land Management is considering making the land a reserve, not for animals, as you would expect, but for oil. The plan is to create a 23.5 million acre reserve called the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. Instead of creating a safe harbor for this threatened ecosystem the BLM plans to facilitate the exploitation by allowing for oil and gas development.

The reserve is currently the largest continuous swatch of public land in the Unites States. The ecosystems and climates contained in the reserve are various and include coastal lagoons as well as rugged mountains. All the rich diversity of the public land would be threatened by oil and gas development. Some of the largest populations of grizzly and polar bears, muskoxen, caribou, the arctic fox, wolves, seals and bowhead whales reside in this area. Without essential lagoons, plains, tundra, wetlands, and lakes there would be no place for birds to nest, stage, feed, and molt. There are millions of waterfowl, sea, and shorebirds that depend on such areas.

The reserve should remain protected for future generations of wildlife and people alike. The environmental nonprofit group Earthjustice is compiling thousands of public comments to submit to the Bureau of Land Management on behalf of preserving the arctic. They also are working to save salmon, protect the Arctic Ocean from drilling, and protect the arctic from fracking.  To preserve these important natural wonders please check out their petitions to President Obama, the Bureau of Land Management and the Senate here: Earthjustice Advocacy.

Photo credit: arctic.fws.gov/images/arctic.gif

Stop Offshore Drilling in the Polar Bear Seas

The Obama Administration’s recent proposed oil drilling initiative in the Polar Bear Seas in Alaska has sparked a response from environmental groups and animal conservation activists, who see the federal government’s five year plan, intended to be implemented in 2012, as a major threat to polar bears in Alaska. The two seas, the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, are a habitat for a high number of polar bears and other arctic animals.

A petition on thepetitionsite.com, sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), states, “These waters are home to more than half of America’s polar bears and include a sensitive area off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the polar bear’s favorite onshore birthing ground in Alaska.”

Oil drilling in Alaska would hurt not only polar bears, but also seals, whales, walruses and other Alaskan animals. The drilling would threaten these animals’ natural habitat, and a potential oil spill would kill many animals, covering them with oil.

If a spill were to occur in Alaska, the forceful seas, prolonged periods of fog and darkness and the harsh environment would make cleanup efforts difficult, as would the fact that both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are blanketed with ice for the majority of the year. The Coast Guard has stated that it does not have the capacity to respond to a potential oil spill in Alaska, and the oil industry has no record of a successful oil spill cleanup in icy seas, making it uncertain that big oil companies have the capacity or technology to clean up a possible spill.

The NRDC’s petition says, “If the oil industry couldn’t clean up a spill in the temperate Gulf of Mexico, what chance does it have in a remote environment with 20-foot surging seas, gale-force winds and sub-zero temperatures?” The risk of an oil spill, combined with the lack of knowledge and technology available to execute a successful oil cleanup in the Arctic, strongly suggests that drilling in the Arctic Ocean possesses too many risks and potential for damage to wildlife, the environment and the native people of Alaska.

Polar bears, a species already listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, face threats due to climate change, which has caused the Arctic ice to melt and destroy their habitat. Oil drilling would burden polar bears with additional threats, making the survival of the species more difficult. In addition to the dangers that marine animals face, Alaska’s native population will suffer from damage to their natural home as well.

The Alaskan wilderness, one of the last untouched and well-preserved areas in the United States, needs to be protected from not only the environmental dangers of oil drilling, but also from the disastrous effects of an oil spill. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas have been closed to oil development since 1991, and we, as responsible citizens and environmental advocates, need to take action to keep them off-limits.

In its letter, the NRDC also calls for the halt of any new leases on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and asks the federal government to keep the Pacific and Atlantic coasts free from oil rigs. The organization states that, instead of opening up American waters to environmentally-threatening oil drilling, the federal government should support the development and implementation of different forms of clean energy that do not possess a risk or threat to the environment and that will support the economy.

Add your name to the petition letter, directed to Steven Textoris of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, at thepetitionsite.com to show your support for polar bears and the natural Alaskan environment.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/davidw/2132684141

Dinosaur Footprints at Risk of Demolition

Along the coast of western Australia, a region called the Kimberley is home to 50 continuous miles of fossilized dinosaur tracks made 130 million years ago. Some prints are a colossal 5 feet long, created by the great Sauropods, huge quadrupedal plant-eaters to which Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus belong, and the largest land animals to have ever walked the Earth.

In 1994 reports of the tracks were so spectacular that accounts of them were thought to be embellished and were left unstudied for some time. Once examined, the “Broome Dinosaur Highway” was found to have representatives from at least 15 different species including carnivorous, herbivorous, and possibly armored dinosaurs like Stegosaurus. Aside from a few bone fragments, this is the only indication of dinosaurs found in western Australia, and some species are unprecedented in the entire country. But the fate of this so far unbroken stretch of irreplaceable historic evidence is in jeopardy.

The Kimberley is a remote and sparsely populated region and has only recently been recognized for its scientific and economic possibilities. Gas giants Shell, BP, and Woodside Energy of Perth hope to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plant in the Browse Basin at James Price Point, a coastal zone at the northern end of the dinosaur track line. The commercialization of these offshore natural gas sources would feed a multi-billion dollar export deal made with China.

Construction of this plant would mean certain destruction for some of the prints, but scientists are further concerned that indirect consequences could endanger a much larger section of coastline. The proposed jetties and sand dredging involved in building the gas hub is likely to cause shifting sands along the coast and could obscure several more miles of the dinosaur prints, many of which are already only accessible at low tide. The research value of the tracks doesn’t come from just independent impressions, but from the study of the collection as a whole, possibly providing answers to long time questions regarding dinosaur social behavior and travel.

Prominent paleontologists have been pleading for the preservation of the area due to its unmatched scientific significance. Dr. Tony Thulborn of the University of Queensland sent a petition with the names of over 80 scientists from 16 countries protesting the project to the state government. Dr. Steve Salisbury, also of the University of Queensland, has expressed his apprehension through various media outlets. On the Public Radio International show The World, he described the site as “phenomenal in terms of the sort of information we get out of it for understanding dinosaur movements.”

The fossilized footprints have been getting a lot of press, and because of their fame the Browse Basin plant has become the poster child of industrialization that covets the entire Kimberley region. So while evidence of extinct animals are under some threat, what of the living ones of this millennium?

Conservationists from multiple organizations are concerned with the processing plant’s effects on both the terrestrial and marine environments. According to Environs Kimberley, construction would destroy over 5500 acres of land, likely including several hundred acres of rare rainforest-like habitat called Monsoon Vine Thickets.

Also at critical risk is the endemic Flatback turtle along with 5 other endangered turtle species found in the vicinity. Fear for the disturbance of manatee, Humpback whale, and Snubfin dolphin (only just recognized as unique to Australia) whose migratory patterns are not well known have organizations demanding caution and further study.

Without an established knowledge base like those on the eastern side of the continent (now containing protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef), environmentalists claim there isn’t enough groundwork yet to make educated decisions about industrial opportunities.

As for the people who make the Kimberly their home, opinions have been divided. On May 6th, after much deliberation and negotiation, Aborigine landowners voted in favor of a deal with the state government allowing the project to go through. The government had already begun obtaining the rights by compulsory acquisition, creating some bitterness with much of the population, and splinter groups are still determined to continue the fight against development.

The final jurisdiction lies with Australian Environmental Minister Tony Burke. At his authority, several large sections of the Kimberley region including James Price Point are being considered for classification as a National Heritage Site. This may not be enough to prevent the LNG plant however. Heritage listing only requires that potentially irreparable damage to heritage value be taken into account before industry approval. Burke may deem the plant’s high economic value to outweigh negligible disturbance to the environment.

A decision was originally expected late last year, but Burke postponed it in order to further assess the situation and consider public feedback. By June 30th the world will see what is to become of western Australia’s scientific relics and pristine ecosystems.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/gregw66/4056320716/

Concerns Mount Over Growing Gulf Oil Spill

GULF OF MEXICO, April 27 – An oil rig that exploded and sank off of the coast of Louisiana last Thursday has reportedly been leaking 42,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion.  Original reports concluded that the oil was not leaking despite the sinking of the rig, but two leaks were discovered approximately 5,000 feet below the water’s surface on Saturday. 

Fireboats battle the Deepwater Horizon fire on April 21, 2010  Photo: uscgd8

A robotic vehicle unit has been dispatched to attempt to seal the leaks by manually instituting a blowout preventer that failed to prevent the oil from escaping broken pipes.  National Ocean Service Acting Assistant administrator David Kennedy, who was science coordinator during the 11-million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup, stated that the leaks were difficult to discover because they are so far below the surface and because the primary concern of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)  and the Coast Guard had been search and rescue operations for any survivors of the initial explosion.  The initial explosion occurred on the rig on April 20, sending 126 workers into lifeboats.   Eleven workers from the rig are still missing and are presumed dead.

Oil rigs are common in the Gulf of Mexico  Photo: NOAA

The oil spill is currently 600 miles wide and subject to wind direction.  As of Monday evening, the winds had changed direction away from land, pushing the oil back towards the former location of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was about 53 miles south of Venice, Louisiana.  Oil was not expected to directly impact the coast for at least three days.  As the oil interacts with the coastal environment, impacts on the ecosystem can affect fish, turtles, sea mammals and birds and coral reefs.  Commercial impacts may affect the shrimp, crab, mussel and oyster populations.  If the oil leak remains unsecured, the impacts will increase in range.  In addition, ships are attempting to skim oil from the surface when weather conditions allow.  Aircraft are applying oil dispersant and provided aerial assessment.  NOAA will continue to monitor weather and tidal activity to anticipate the oil trajectory and impact.  Several sperm whales were spotted in the area but were unaffected by the spill.  Similar oil leaks can persist for months if uncontrolled, as the oil is emptying out of a large known reservoir.  A recent similar spill in Australia leaked for ten weeks before being controlled.

Coast Guard deploying oil boom  Photo: EPA

BP Global, the company leasing the rig, has revealed plans to drill wells to relieve the oil pressure if the flow can’t be plugged.  The company is also investigating a dome to contain oil directly from the well.  These solutions could take up to two months to implement.  Over 1,000 BP employees are working towards containment of the spill.  The coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are readying thousands of feet of boom, a floating tube designed to absorb the oil, to protect fragile and economically important coastlines.  Efforts by underwater vehicles have been hampered by the difficulty of performing maneuvers such as turning valves at a depth of 5,000 feet, a repair which has never been attempting at such depth. 

Oil spills have lasting ecological effects  Photo: marinephotobank

The oil emergency has caused growing political attention.  President Obama has recently introduced federal plans to increased oil exploration off of the American coast.  The dangers of deeper drilling are being debated against the dangers of closer proximity to shore.  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the distance is giving the coast time to prepare but the depth has hampered repair efforts.  Lawmakers are also questioning the safety regulation on Gulf rigs.  Senators from New Jersey and Florida wrote to the heads of the Energy and Commerce committees calling for a separate agency to oversee rig safety, which is now the responsibility of the Mineral Management Service (MMS).  MMS also runs rig lease sales.

The oil spill could affect the surrounding marine community for years or potentially even decades into the future.  The area contains four endangered turtle species.  The Gulf is also one of two hatchery sites for endangered bluefin tuna.