Audubon View

Photograph by Steve Kaslowski

Audubon View

If Shell Oil has its way and drilling proceeds in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, rich bird habitat and nurseries could suffer the consequences of a spill.

By David Yarnold
Published: July-August 2012

Where birds and habitat need protection, Audubon answers the call. In the rich bird nurseries and habitats of the Pacific Flyway's farthest reaches, there's a potential catastrophe looming. A drilling fleet under contract to Shell Oil is planning to drill in the Arctic Ocean's Beaufort Sea about 15 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If Shell has its way, drills will also penetrate deep beneath the Chukchi Sea, farther west, cracking open a box of almost unimaginable environmental woes. 

The Arctic Ocean is a phenomenally harsh environment. Broken ice covers enormous expanses for much of the year. Storms with hurricane-force winds can whip up 20-foot seas. Temperatures drop to 40 below zero. And it's dark for half the year.

Retired Vice Admiral Roder Ruff, who helped prepare the Coast Guard's review of the BP oil disaster, has described the United States' ability to address a spill in icy conditions as "pretty abysmal."

The U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that "it remains unclear" whether oil spill countermeasures can be deployed effectively in the Arctic Ocean "or whether they will work even if available." More than 500 scientists joined in sending a letter to President Obama asking him not to allow oil drilling to proceed this summer, after various federal agencies, including the EPA, granted the necessary permits.

The U.S. government's own nonpartisan watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, is also concerned about the lack of oil spill response capability and preparedness. We are, too. Cleaning up a major spill in the Arctic Ocean would make the BP disaster look like child's play. The unspoiled Arctic doesn't just hold a sacred place in our collective imagination--it is critical like nowhere else on earth to the future of our wild birds. Hundreds of species arrive every spring from North America's four flyways. Here they nest, lay eggs, and raise their young. This is also crucial habitat for many of America's remaining polar bears.

We're using every weapon in our arsenal to avert this desecration of our shared natural heritage. The battle to protect the Arctic is a touchstone for conservation and the future of wilderness and wildlife on our planet. I'm asking each of you to Raise Your Voice for Arctic Birds. To help, click here.

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David Yarnold

David Yarnold is the president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine