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Lawsuit pending against NOAA over ribbon seal protection

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Web posted Friday, April 10, 2009
By Margaret Bauman 
Alaska Journal of Commerce

Officials with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have received a formal notice from two conservation groups regarding intent to sue over the agency’s alleged failure to protect ribbon seals under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA attorneys are now studying the notice, to which they must respond with 60 days, but had no immediate comment, said spokeswoman Sheela McLean.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace filed March 31 against NOAA, asking the federal agency to review a decision regarding the ribbon seals made in the closing days of the Bush administration.

The ribbon seal, an ice-dependent species of the Bering, Chukchi and Okhotsk seas off of Alaska and Russia, is threatened by global warming and the consequent loss of its sea-ice habitat, as well as recent decisions to open its habitat to oil development, the groups said.

In response to a legal petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, in the waning days of the Bush administration, NOAA concluded in December 2008 that the ribbon seal did not warrant ESA protection because sufficient sea ice would remain in the seal’s habitat for the species to survive at least until mid-century.

“If the existing laws were properly implements, there would already be more restriction of offshore oil and gas (activities),” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Oil and gas exploration and development in this region poses a threefold risk, he said. “Finding oil involves seismic, and mitigation measures for seismic are currently inadequate,” he said.

Cummings also said the risk of oil spills increases when drilling offshore, because the technology is lacking to clean up oil in ice. Onshore platforms fuel the industrialization of the area, he said.

Finally, said Cummings, “given the nature of the climate crisis, the global warming, we should not be handing out any more entitlements to oil companies for fossil fuel until we have a coherent national plan for reducing greenhouse emissions in the amount scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.”

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Oil, which has 275 exploration leases, including some offshore leases, in the area, disagreed emphatically.

“All of our operations are tailored to meet or exceed requirements for operating in the Arctic,” Smith said. “In the event that any marine mammal is listed (for protection under the Endangered Species Act), we would work with stakeholders and regulators to best determine what if any new mitigation measures are needed.”

Shell already operates in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where the bowhead whale heads the list of endangered species, “and their population continues to increase,” he said. “We have had significant seismic in the Beaufort and Chukchi for the last three years, and subsistence hunting, by all accounts, has been good.”

Smith said Shell has published detailed plans, tested procedures, trained and demonstrated to regulators and community leaders the oil company’s capacity to deal with any conceivable spill event in arctic ice and open arctic water.

“We spend just as many resources and more time on the prevention side of that, to make sure it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected]

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