The U.S. federal government has given permission for Shell Oil to begin drilling in the Beaufort Sea, which is north of Alaska. Neither the government, nor Shell Oil have adequate means of responding to an oil spill there, says Defenders of Wildlife. Without proper containment and rapid clean-up, an oil spill would likely be an ecological disaster. The planned drilling activity is right in the migration path of endangered bowhead whales which live in these icy waters. It could prevent them from reaching a feeding and resting area they have been using for some time. Disruption of their normal behavior could cause them to go off their normal breeding schedule. Additionally the noise of drilling and ice breaking could disrupt their normal feeding and resting, which might harm mothers and young calves.
“Proceeding with oil and gas drilling at this time is simple and plain lunacy. America’s Arctic is our last frontier, and this magnificent ecosystem supports a vast array of marine mammals: whales, polar bears, walrus, ice seals” said Chuck Clusen, an employee at the National Resources Defense Council. (Source: Bloomberg)
A recent report says there are still close ties between the oil industry and the U.S. government, “These new instances indicate that BOEMRE staff are connected to individuals and oil companies, which raises concerns about lax oversight and the integrity of the agency.” (Source: Trib.com)
Bowheads are named for their large skulls, which are used to break through ice. They typically can break through eight-inch-thick slabs, and once broke through 23 inches. They are about 50 to 60 feet long and can weigh up to 75 tons. Even at that size they can jump completely out of the water. Data about their lifespans is not abundant, but there is some indication they could live to the age of 100 years.
Before commercial exploitation, an estimate of their population was 50,000, but due to over-hunting, by 1920 they decreased to about 3,000. Now the population is estimated at 7,000 to 10,000. Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort is the largest bowhead community with over 70 percent of the whole species. Fortunately this population is believed to be increasing slightly each year.
The Beaufort Sea is relatively undeveloped, and one of the more pristine areas left on Earth. It also is home to a large population of beluga whales. Polar cod, arctic char, narwhal, seals, polar bears, and walrus also live there.
Shell Oil is the U.S. subsidiary of Europe’s largest oil company. Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, is back in the Gulf of Mexico working on more drilling. It seems unlikely huge, foreign oil companies have the same concern for America’s environment as we Americans do, and therefore the federal government’s too friendly relationship with them goes against the interests both of the people and the wildlife that live here.
Image Credit: Dave Rugh, NOAA