5 Animals Threatened by Arctic Oil Drilling

#Ecolist of Things We Love

Alaska and the Arctic Ocean are changing fast. And if President Trump and the oil industry get their way, dangerous offshore oil drilling projects could push several imperiled species in the region down the path toward extinction. If they give us Liberty, an oil project now under consideration, they may be giving us death.

The Arctic is heating up at twice the global warming rate, melting the sea ice that reflects heat and creates habitat for many species. The permafrost is thawing, which releases even more greenhouse gases, causes the land to soften and sink, and could wreak havoc on Alaska’s critical infrastructure.

Our addiction to fossil fuels created these threats, and Trump’s efforts to expand offshore drilling would only deepen our dependence and accelerate climate change. A catastrophic oil spill in this harsh environment would be devastating and impossible to clean up.

But before we allow our government to take us down this dark and dangerous path, let’s meet some of the Arctic wildlife that could be injured or killed by offshore oil drilling:

Pacific walruses (Credit: Chris Marquardt)

Walruses — With their adorable whiskered faces and long tusks, walruses have often been celebrated in literature and song. After being hunted nearly to extinction, walruses in the Arctic made a big comeback, only to face new threats from humans. They rely on sea ice for hunting, resting and reproduction, but Arctic sea ice cover has reached record lows. So walruses have been hauling out onto nearby landmasses in big numbers and earlier than ever, where they can be killed by predators or in stampedes. Studies show Pacific walruses will clearly decline with Arctic sea-ice loss, but the Trump administration just denied them Endangered Species Act protection (a decision we’re challenging). Throw a major oil spill onto that trend and we may see walruses disappear in our lifetimes.

Polar bear (Credit: Alex Berger)

Polar bears — These powerful, white bears have long symbolized the rugged, frozen Arctic, where they’ve been vitally important to native cultures for thousands of years. But more recently, polar bears have become a powerful symbol of climate change, which threatens them with extinction. The only species of bear categorized as a marine mammal, polar bears are strong swimmers who feed primarily on ice seals. But as sea ice and their natural habitats disappear, polar bears are forced to swim longer distances and have a hard time getting enough food to survive. Adding pollution and oil spills from offshore drilling into the mix could doom polar bears, which can easily die of hypothermia if oil residue gets into their insulated fur coats. Although polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Liberty offshore drilling project that Hilcorp seeks to build in the Beaufort Sea is located right in the heart of the polar bear’s critical habitat.

Bowhead whale and calf. (Credit: IIP Photo Archives)

Bowhead whales — The bowhead whale, also known as the Arctic whale, spends its entire life in the waters of the frozen north. It is the only species of baleen whale that remains in the Arctic year-round rather than migrating south in the winter to feed and reproduce. Their only natural ocean predators are killer whales, but the threats they face from humans are far greater. Like many large whales, the bowhead was hunted nearly to extinction before commercial whaling was banned. The population rebounded with help from Endangered Species Act protections, but that success story is now being undermined by the threat of Arctic offshore oil drilling. The Liberty project proposed about five miles offshore in the Beaufort Sea would be built right next an established bowhead whale migration route, threatening to disturb their feeding and communications and exposing them to pollution, ship strikes and oil spills.

Bearded seal (Credit: Chris Earley)

Ice seals — This broad term refers to 10 different species of seals that live on and beneath the floating polar ice, six of them around the Arctic. Bearded seals have faces full of whiskers that can curl when dry, giving them a raffish look that seems appropriate for the frozen north. Ringed seals are covered in dark spots surrounded by light grey rings. Bearded and ringed seals are most common in the Arctic, but they face serious challenges to their survival — and to their conservation. Climate change threatens them with food scarcity and loss of sea ice. Decreased snow cover also impairs ringed seals’ ability to build snow caves to shelter their pups, which are born without blubber. Both have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, only to have those decisions challenged by the oil industry. The bearded seal’s listing was upheld by an appeals court, but opponents are appealing to the Supreme Court. The ringed seal’s listing was overturned by the district court, but the appeals court is scheduled to hear our appeal in December. A major oil spill would be devastating to ice seals, particularly if the industry that caused that spill succeeds in denying them the protection they need.

Beluga whale blowing a bubble. (Credit: James Grimmelmann)

Beluga whales — Belugas may just be the cutest creatures on Earth. These small white whales have big foreheads and upturned mouths that make it appear as if they’re constantly smiling. They communicate with high-pitched twitters that have led some to call them sea canaries. Like their closest cousin, the unicorn-like narwhal, belugas have a mythical quality, but the threats they face in and around the Arctic are very real. The endangered population of belugas in Alaska’s Cook Inlet is down to just 340 individuals, which were just subjected to natural gas bubbling into their homes for nearly four months from one of Hilcorp’s broken underwater lines. The company bought 14 more offshore leases in Cook Inlet this summer, but its Liberty project in the Arctic may pose an even greater threat to beluga whales in that region. Long-living belugas accumulate toxins from human-created pollution, which often undermine their health and make them susceptible to disease. Beluga populations in the Beaufort Sea swim close to shore, making them vulnerable to spills and pollution from current and proposed offshore drilling projects there.

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