The new hot spot in the environmental protection war is the Arctic

With the ice cap melting, nations are stampeding north to tap the likely bonanza of natural resources below the sea floor. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are already in court trying to slow the gold rush, fearing for polar bears and whales.
Crosscut archive image.

A frame from a video sequence demonstrating the melting of the Arctic ice cap over time, from research by Ignatius Rigor at the University of Washington.

With the ice cap melting, nations are stampeding north to tap the likely bonanza of natural resources below the sea floor. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are already in court trying to slow the gold rush, fearing for polar bears and whales.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, environmentalists were fighting construction of a Trans Alaska Pipeline, which was to carry North Slope oil from the shore of the Arctic Ocean to the ice-free port of Valdez. Their ultimate doomsday scenario was an oil spill in the Arctic spreading over the sea ice, absorbing solar radiation, and melting the polar ice cap.

It turns out that the polar ice cap is melting anyway - and the event is spurring a new rush to petroleum in the Arctic.

Everyone who follows the news at all knows by now that most of the Arctic Ocean is losing ice and that scientists expect all the ice to disappear before the end of the century. The standard model predicts an ice-free Arctic by 2070. Ignatius Rigor and colleagues from the University of Washington have found that this year's ice pack is the thinnest on record, and if things continue on their current trajectory, the ice will be gone by 2030. (They've produced an online movie of the shrinking ice cap.)

An ice-free Arctic Ocean would probably mean the end for polar bears, which walk on the ice to hunt seals, and would make it harder to hide nuclear submarines, which have been lurking under the ice pack since the 1950s, but it would be open to merchant shipping, oil drilling platforms, and, potentially, mineral exploitation. (Scooping minerals from the sea bed isn't a new idea. Think of the Glomar Explorer, built in the early 1970s allegedly to harvest manganese nodules from the deep ocean floor but actually to salvage a Soviet nuclear submarine lost 13,000 feet beneath the surface.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas may lie below the Arctic Ocean floor; gold, platinum, and other metals may also be there for the taking.

The nations with Arctic territory - the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (which has a claim on the Arctic because it owns Greenland) – are already jostling for shares of the coming pie. In general, each coastal nation gets exclusive economic rights within 200 nautical miles of its coast, but if it can prove its continental shelf extends beyond 200 miles, it can claim exclusive economic rights farther out. (Extending one's jurisdiction out toward the North Pole may prove less contentious than defending the lateral boundaries of that jurisdiction against the claims of sharp-elbowed nations next door.) Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. has never signed, within 10 years after ratifying the treaty, a nation may submit arctic sea floor claims to an international panel, which can ultimately decide who gets what.

All the nations are busily mapping the sea floor to substantiate future claims. Russia and Norway have already submitted their claims. Canada and Denmark have six and seven years, respectively, in which to do so. The U.S. is in no position to make a claim until it ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention.

In an Aug. 2 publicity stunt that grabbed worldwide attention, Russia sent two mini submarines more than 13,000 feet down below the ice to plant a Russian flag encased in titanium on the Lomonosov Ridge, which Russia claims extends its continental shelf all the way to the North Pole. Canada, not to be outdone, has announced that it will build a military training base and a deep-water docking facility in the Arctic, along with $7 billion worth of armed Arctic patrol vessels. It has also sold oil and gas exploration rights in the Beaufort Sea east of Alaska to Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil Canada for $585 million (Canadian).

The U.S. has been mapping energetically to support its own claims. (The Coast Guard ship Healy left Seattle in August for a four-week mapping excursion.) And it might finally sign the Law of the Sea Convention.

President Bush has been pushing for ratification. Ultra-conservatives remain as firmly opposed as they were 25 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan - fearing that the convention might provide a mechanism for wealth redistribution based on undersea resources – refused to sign. President Bill Clinton did sign the treaty in 1994, when it went into effect, but the Senate refused to ratify it. The far right still doesn't want anything to do with a convention established under the auspices of the U.N. This is a case of ideology trumping national self-interest, says Marc Hershman, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Marine Affairs. At this point, he says, "there is no opposition from any sane people." Even the marginally sane must realize that the days when one could simply plant a flag or a cross and claim a vast territory one had never seen - or buy a vast territory and send Lewis and Clark out to examine it after the fact - are long gone.

Close-in portions of the Arctic Ocean are already fair game. In February, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave Shell permission to drill up to 12 exploration wells over three years in the U.S. portion of the Beaufort Sea. Shell plans to use two drilling vessels, two ice breakers, several supply boats, and a small flock of helicopters. The whole flotilla was ready to head north this summer, but last month a coalition of environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice and joined by the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, got the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a stay of MMS approval, delaying Shell at least until next summer. The groups allege that the MMS violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act by failing to adequately consider the impact of oil exploration and the possible effects of an oil spill on bowhead whales and other critters, failing to require an environmental impact statement, and failing to require specific locations for the wells. The Ninth Circuit will hear the case later this year.

Whales are sensitive to sound, and the noise of drilling and seismic exploration may affect the migration of bowhead whales from their calving ground in the eastern Beaufort Sea. An oil spill might affect not only whales but polar bears and other species, including Stellar's eider, that use the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Four of the wells would be drilled just north of the wildlife refuge, so in a sense, this dispute is an extension of the long-running battle over ANWR.)

The plaintiffs have pointed to questions that the government's own scientists have raised about the environmental impact of exploring for oil in the Beaufort Sea.

Potential impacts to polar bears and subsistence harvests from spilled oil were of particular concern to MMS scientists. The scientists were concerned that "the proposed action has the potential to SIGNIFICANTLY impact polar bears due to oil spill risk." ... One analyst noted, "two of the largest polar bear aggregations on the Beaufort coast ... are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill."

The plaintiffs noted that this concern was carried over into the MMS scientist's draft evaluating the potential impact on polar bears:

"Due to the threats posed to coastal polar bear aggregations from an oil spill during the fall open water period and because Shell has provided nothing ... that addresses potential threats to polar bears, or even indicates that they considered polar bears in their planning process, our overall finding is that the Proposed Action has the potential to significantly impact polar bears in the event of a large oil spill."

As for the whales,

Studies suggest that "[i]ncreased noise levels could interfere with communication among whales, mask important natural sound, cause physiological damage, or alter normal behavior, such as causing avoidance behavior that keeps animals from an important area or displace a migration route farther from shore."

The plaintiffs note that "Shell's exploratory drilling and seismic testing will produce noise well in excess of the levels that can affect bowhead whales. ... Available evidence indicates that a single, 'relatively low-powered icebreaker' will 'commonly' affect the movement and behavior of 'typical traveling bowheads' at distance up to 30 kilometers and 'sometimes' at distances beyond 50 kilometers."

This is probably the first of many environmental battles that will arise from efforts to exploit the soon-to-be-denuded Arctic Ocean. What happens when mineral exploration pushes farther out from the coast? What happens when people start planning pipelines to take all that natural gas to market? In the meantime, keep an eye on San Francisco to see how the Ninth Circuit parses the conflict between offshore exploration and bowhead whales.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.