July 10, 2008

Alaskan Fish And Wildlife Regulations Challenged

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, two environmental groups are demanding a reversal of regulations passed last month giving permission to oil companies working in the Chukchi Sea to disturb the polar bears and walrus that live there.

Filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment, the lawsuit hopes to overturn a ruling reached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month which allows "incidental takes" of native animals to the region.

The regulations, which are set to be in effect for five years, allow oil companies to disturb or accidentally harass the animals as long as they do not cause physical injury or death.

Tuesday's lawsuit is the latest volley in legal challenges over protections for polar bears and other animals from expanded oil development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska.

"It may seem like we're filing a lot of lawsuits," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the center.

"But the fundamental thing is they're all really focusing on the same fundamental issue, which is protecting polar bear habitat in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas."

"We believe that the incidental-take regulations are a valuable conservation tool," said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska headquarters.

Polar bears became listed in May as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Pacific walrus could gain the same protection thanks to a new petition. Many of these animals reside in the remote Chukchi Sea, which has become a major prospect for oil companies.

A lease sale held by the U.S. Minerals Management Service in February drew a record $2.66 billion in high bids, with $2.1 billion of that from Shell. Shell currently holds a permit from the MMS to do seismic testing in the Chukchi this year to evaluate the geology there.

The oil industry is increasingly interested in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern coast. Shell, which spent $44 million on leases there in 2005 and $39 million in 2007, is seeking to explore a prospect it calls Sivulliq.

BP Plc hopes to develop the offshore Liberty prospect, which could become the first producing oil field located entirely in federal waters off Alaska's coast.

This is raising concern among environmentalists and the native Inupiat Eskimos who fear that the new prospect will add danger to whales, polar bears and other Arctic animals who are already facing problems due to the warming climate.

"It's an unfortunate convergence that as global warming impacts in the Arctic are accelerating and putting polar bears and walrus under deep stress, the only thing keeping pace with that is the rate of authorizing oil development in their habitat," Cummings said.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by Inupiat villagers and environmental groups challenging permits granted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the MMS.

The "balance of hardships" weighs in favor of the agencies, BP and Shell, "who have invested significant time and expense in preparing for the scheduled activities," Beistline said in his July 2 ruling. "Moreover, the public interest in energy development favors upholding the permits."

Cummings said an appeal has already been filed.