The Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's northernmost shores, and the Chukchi Sea, which separates Alaska from Russia, are home to one in five of the world's remaining polar bears. These icy waters are crucial feeding and migration zones for bowhead, beluga and other whales, seals, walruses and migratory birds; for thousands of years they have also sustained a vibrant Native culture. But the Bush administration treated America's Arctic as just another place to be exploited, relentlessly pushing oil and gas drilling without regard for the consequences.
Now a new President and his Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, have pledged to restore science to the forefront of decisions about energy and the environment. They have no better opportunity to fulfill that pledge than in the coming weeks, as they face key decisions on oil and gas activity in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas - decisions that will determine the future of the region, its people and its creatures.
The Arctic has been called the least understood region on Earth. We do know it is already where climate change has hit hardest, as warmer temperatures threaten ecosystems, fish, wildlife and the people whose way of life depends on them.
That's all the more reason the Arctic must be treated carefully, to minimize the risk of further and irreparable injury. Here's what the President and Sec. Salazar can do to make a decisive break from the "drill here, drill now" policies of the Bush administration and show Americans a new day has dawned in the Arctic:
• Salazar must decide the fate of Shell Oil's plan for exploratory drilling next year in the Beaufort Sea, just off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shell proposed to drill directly in the endangered bowhead whale's migratory path. Noise and potential oil spills could not only harm the whales, but polar bears and Alaska Native hunting and fishing. This plan must not proceed without a rigorous review of potential impacts.
• Salazar is reviewing a court ruling that the Bush administration's five-year plan for offshore Arctic drilling did not comply with the law. A controversial lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was held under this plan in 2008, and more lease sales in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering seas are planned. The administration should cancel the upcoming lease sales and void the illegal Chukchi leases.
• Salazar has yet to take a position on a separate legal challenge to the Chukchi lease sale, which took place without adequate review of the potential environmental damage or any real plan to deal with oil spills. The administration should not defend this illegal sale.
The bottom line: we need to call a time out on all new offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic until we fully understand what's at stake and how to protect it. That means putting in place a comprehensive conservation and energy plan that protects the Arctic and its people. The Obama administration has made commendable promises to change the way it does business, put science and the public interest first, and take a new direction in the Arctic. Now it's time for action.