WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Nov. 26, 2010
The U.S. Interior Department has designated 187,000 square miles of offshore sea ice and other areas as critical habitat for polar bears, a move that could make it harder for Shell to begin drilling in Alaskan waters next summer.
The Interior Department issued the final rules as Shell has been lobbying the Obama administration to by the end of the year approve its plans to drill in Alaska waters, especially the Chukchi Sea. The Chukchi and the Beaufort seas are home to the nation's two big polar bear populations, the Interior Department said, and thus provide critical habitat for species that the U.S. government has listed as threatened.
A critical habitat designation doesn't automatically prohibit development. But the status does force the U.S. Interior Department to consult its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and get a determination about whether any activity it is authorizing will destroy or adversely modify a critical habitat.
"Industrializing the Chukchi sea adversely modifies that area as critical area for the polar bear," said Brendan Cummings, who specializes in the issue at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. "I don't see how Interior can move forward with allowing oil development to occur in the Chukchi Sea and be consistent with what this designation should entail."
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said that the company was reviewing the designation. "It's our commitment to protecting the environment and the way of life on the North Slope," she said. "As new consultations take place, we will continue to work with stakeholders and regulators to determine if additional mitigation measures are needed."
Shell has already spent at least $3 billion on leases, equipment, training and oil-spill response planning in connection with plans to drill in the Alaska's Beafort and Chukchi seas. It had hoped to begin drilling this summer, but U.S. President Barack Obama halted those plans in May when he shut down drilling across a wide swath of U.S. coastal waters in response to the BP PLC (BP. BP.LN) oil spill.
The U.S. Interior Department also said that it would not treat "existing manmade structures" as critical habitat, a departure from last year's proposal. Environmentalists say that the change represents a weakening of protections for polar bears.
"Sadly, the critical habitat designation for polar bears is biased to exclude all human structures, including oil and gas facilities, notwithstanding that many of these structures are completely surrounded by critical habitat," said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement.
Copyright (c) 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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