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Press Room:  For Immediate Release 
Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet

February 5, 2008
Contact: Kristina Johnson (415) 977-5619

Bush Administration To Open Polar Bear Sea to Oil Drilling
Decision to Allow Drilling Ignores Threats to Alaska Natives, Polar Bears

Anchorage, AK- In spite of controversy, court challenges, and broad local opposition, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service is expected to move forward tomorrow with an oil and gas lease sale for drilling in the Chukchi Sea. The Chukchi Sea, one of Alaska’s Polar Bear Seas, is home to roughly one-tenth of the world’s polar bears, as well as walruses and endangered whales. Native villages along Alaska’s North Slope rely on the sea for cultural and nutritional subsistence.

The Chukchi lease sale has been mired in controversy, with members of Congress calling for a halt. A broad coalition of conservation groups and Alaska Natives are challenging the sale in court, based on the agency’s failure to adequately assess the impacts of drilling in the fragile marine habitat. Impacts include seismic testing, tanker traffic, the use of ice-breaking vessels, and the ever present threat of an oil spill.

Controversy escalated in early January, when the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service missed a court-ordered deadline to decide whether or not to list the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. The agency said it was postponing its decision for roughly one month--enough time to allow tomorrow’s lease sale to move forward first.

"It’s outrageous that the Interior Department is moving forward with drilling in the Chukchi Sea," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The agency based its decision on unrealistic and incomplete information, ignoring scientists’ warnings about the hazards of drilling, and the fact that the local polar bears are still under consideration for endangered species protections. In light of all of the unanswered questions and agency missteps, this drilling should not be taking place at all."

"The Interior Department is in such a rush to open the fragile waters of the Arctic’s Polar Bear Seas to drilling that it has not fully considered what a major oil spill would do," Pope said. "There is no way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s broken sea ice. Even in calm, open water, you can never fully clean up a spill, no matter how good your response is."

"We are talking about the part of America that is being hit hardest by global warming. The sea ice polar bears rely on is melting at an alarming rate. Instead of doing everything possible to protect the Arctic and its wildlife, the Bush administration has decided to throw one more hurdle into the mix."

"The Interior Department is supposed to be a steward of America's wildlife. Judging from this decision, it is failing miserably at that charge."

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