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10/14/2011

Permanently Protect the Arctic from the Oil and Gas Industry

Fran HuntThe fight to protect wildlife from oil drilling in the remote ocean waters north of Alaska continues. Last week, a coalition of Alaska Native and conservation groups challenged the Obama Administration's decision to allow offshore oil drilling by Shell Oil in the Beaufort Sea, the section of America's Arctic Ocean north of the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In August, the administration approved the first part of the most aggressive Arctic drilling proposal in the history of the country. With this approval, Shell plans to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea as early as the summer of 2012.

A spill in the Arctic Ocean would devastate polar bears, bowhead whales and other endangered and marine mammals, which would severely affect Native subsistence communities that have thrived in this region for countless generations.

The most recent oil spill practice drill in the Beaufort Sea (which took place more than 10 years ago) described mechanical cleanup in icy conditions as a "failure."  Nothing has changed since that Spill.  A recent report to the Canadian government concluded cleanup would be impossible 44 to 84 percent of the time during the short summer drilling season and completely impossible the other seven to eight months of the year.

U.S. Coast Guard officials have repeatedly explained that the resources to clean up an oil spill in the waters of the Arctic Ocean simply don't exist. This summer, Commandant Admiral Robert Papp told Congress that the federal government has "zero" spill response capability in the Arctic.

And unfortunately it's not just the oceans at risk, the oil and gas industry and their friends in Washington DC have their sights set on special places on the wild pristine tundra as well, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's Coastal Plain.

The Coastal Plain is the vital biological heart of the Refuge. What threatens the Coastal Plain threatens the entire Arctic system of life, for wildlife and humans alike.

Each year, over 250 types of birds and wildlife come to the Coastal Plain to nest, feed, stage and thrive. Birds born on the Coastal Plain of the Refuge visit all fifty states and six continents. It is the most important land-denning area for polar bears in the U.S. It is the critical birthing and nursery grounds for the internationally important Porcupine Caribou Herd.

More than just wildlife is threatened: Because the Coastal Plain is the birthing grounds for caribou, the people of the Gwich'in Nation call this area "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins." For the Gwich'in, it is a human rights issue to protect the Coastal Plain, a vital piece of their traditional way of life and culture which has been based on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for thousands of years.

Right now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is discussing a new plan to recommend this area as Wilderness, which would protect it from destructive energy development. We strongly support this Comprehensive Conservation Plan, and we need your help making sure the Obama Administration knows this area deserves protection from the destructive oil and gas industry.

Take action today to recommend a Wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's Coastal Plain. It's time to permanently protect this treasure.

-- Fran Hunt, Director of the Sierra Club Resilient Habitats Campaign

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