Bear of a Hurdle Leaped: Leases Scheduled for Chukchi Sea, Alaska

The Chukchi Sea in Alaska is safe for oil and gas exploration, said the directors of two Interior Department agencies on Jan. 17. Environmental concerns had halted planned oil lease sales, which should now be on schedule.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, wants to ensure that the ESA listing decision will come before the scheduled Feb. 6 oil lease sales.

Markey introduced legislation that would require the Interior Department to delay its drilling rights sales in the Chukchi Sea until after it makes a decision on the whether to protect the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.

An environmental impact statement from MMS on the proposed Chukchi lease said there was a 33 to 51 percent chance of a large oil spill. If there was a spill, it could have "significant impacts" on polar bears, according to the report.

But John Goll, the Alaska regional director for MMS, noted that the statistics the agency uses to make those estimations include figures about oil spills from years ago when spills were more likely than they are with current technology. The agency has not seen a significant spill since 1980 and thinks a spill unlikely in the Chukchi Sea, Goll told the committee.

Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, which is conducting the oil lease sales, said the bear already is adequately protected against harm from oil and gas development under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And he said the lease sales include provisions to mitigate the impact on the bear.

Luthi said even if the leases are issued before a decision is made on the bear, future listing will have to be taken into account when oil companies seek exploration and development permits.