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.