For thousands of years, the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean have nurtured irreplaceable species including polar bears, whales and seals, and a unique human culture. But in the next few weeks, the Obama administration will make a series of crucial decisions that could determine whether America's Arctic will survive and thrive or be sacrificed to destructive and dangerous oil and gas drilling.
At stake are the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas-the Polar Bear Seas, home to 1 in 5 of the world's remaining polar bears-as well as the rich fishing grounds of Bristol Bay. During the last eight years, the oil and gas industry and the Bush administration pushed hard to open these fragile waters to industrial-scale oil and gas exploration and drilling.
The rush to drill ignored the fact that the Arctic is perhaps the least-understood region on Earth, and that the most basic scientific research is lacking to guide decisions that could alter the Arctic ecosystem forever. An oil spill in icy waters, which is likely if drilling goes forward, would be a disaster we have no idea how to clean up.
The Arctic is ground zero of the global warming crisis. Its seas, its wildlife and its people are already suffering the harmful effects of a warming world. Extracting more oil and gas would not only directly damage the Arctic ecosystem, but burning those fossil fuels will make global warming worse, while doing nothing to meet the nation's need for clean energy.
Now is the time to urge President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to treat America's Arctic as a national treasure and put the brakes on irresponsible oil and gas drilling. Let them know the Arctic is too precious to allow disruptive oil and gas activity without a rigorous, objective scientific review of what may be lost.
Until Sept. 21, Sec. Salazar is asking for Americans' opinions on a Bush-era plan for selling Arctic oil and gas leases in the coming years. At the same time, he is deciding whether to permit Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2010 and whether to defend a Bush-era sale in the Chukchi Sea that offered the pristine area to oil companies without complying with environmental laws.
Sec. Salazar should throw out the Bush-era leasing plan and cancel the illegal Chukchi Sea leases. He should call a "time-out" on all new oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean-including pending drilling plans-until he develops a science-based, comprehensive approach to managing the region that will ensure a legacy of a healthy, living Arctic for future generations.
The Bush administration's aggressive plans for oil and gas development have no place in the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration must not endanger a national treasure for a limited supply of fossil fuel that will hold America back from progress toward a clean energy future. You have pledged to "make wise decisions based on sound information." If you stick to this course, you have an opportunity to come up with a plan for America's Arctic that will ensure its survival -- not its destruction.
The Arctic is the least studied and most poorly understood place in the world, according to the U.S. Arctic Commission. Thus the full range of impacts from oil and gas activities is unknown. We cannot proceed with oil and gas drilling until we understand the impacts on this rapidly changing environment.
One thing we do know is that there is currently no technology that exists to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic's icy conditions. Government scientists have predicted a 40 percent chance of one or more large oil spills in the Chukchi Sea alone if oil is developed there.
You are faced with imminent and important decisions about the Arctic Ocean. You are reviewing the proposed leasing schedule for 2010-2015 and the current 2007-2012 leasing schedule for our nation's oceans. You are deciding whether to defend Bush-era decisions in the Arctic, including Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193, which offered nearly 30 million acres of important habitat for polar bears and other wildlife to oil company leasing. You are deciding whether to permit Shell Oil to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in 2010. These decisions give you the opportunity to reverse the ill-considered and illegal Bush-era decisions in the Arctic Ocean and strike a new path:
* Please throw out the Bush administration five-year plans and cancel the illegal Chukchi Sea leases.
* Please create a plan of your own that fulfills your vision of a science-based, comprehensive approach to offshore development that emphasizes renewable energy and that will ensure a legacy of healthy, living oceans for future generations.
* Until you complete such a plan, please impose a "time-out" from all oil- and gas- related activities in the Arctic Ocean, including pending proposals to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas next summer. At the very least, you must conduct full environmental review and fill in missing data before deciding whether to allow drilling and other harmful activities to proceed in the Arctic Ocean.
Thank you for providing more time for public comment on the offshore leasing plans, for your personal attendance at the hearings around the country, and for your stated intention to base future development decisions on sound science.