Washington, DC — Federal agencies issued permits for oil exploration in vast areas of the Arctic Ocean without verifying industry claims or imposing required safeguards against damage to wildlife, according to agency e-mails released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Intense political pressure to speed Arctic leasing coupled with tardy industry submission of any data resulted in official rubber-stamping of permit applications without review or plans for follow-up.
The permits relate to how much adverse effect from exploration activities may occur on marine mammals, particularly whales. The principal concern is noise from industry use of powerful seismic air-guns, high intensity sonar and explosives detonations in its search for promising geology on the sea floor.
By regulation, the permits called Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) and geological & geophysical (G&G) exploration, must have detailed plans for monitoring and reporting, including independent peer-review of proposed monitoring plans to ensure the reliability of industry representations. Yet, according to agency e-mails, these requirements were set aside in the rush to get permits approved in time for oil companies to take advantage of the 2008 “open water” season, when the Arctic ice recedes enough for ship traffic.
In one December 26, 2007 e-mail to colleagues, Jill Lewandowski, a Protected Species Biologist at Minerals Management Service (MMS) Headquarters in Washington D.C., wrote:
“As you see, Section 9(e) includes the requirement for the peer review. However, the report was not completed for the 2007 Open Water meeting…Therefore, the requirement under 9(e) was not met at the 2007 Open Water meeting and continues to be unmet… MMS has not, to date, had any involvement in reviewing or commenting on contents of this report and our involvement is noticeably absent…So, where do we go from here? No one has surplus time, and we are all under the gun.”
“In essence, our federal agencies are saying to the oil companies, ‘don’t worry about monitoring what you do, we trust you,’’’ stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the agencies still lack any capability to determine the effects of seismic and other exploratory activities on threatened wildlife, including the newly listed polar bear. “Standing orders in Alaska are that no permit may be delayed, let alone denied, regardless of the reason.”
On May 5, 2008, a coalition of conservation and Alaska native groups sued federal agencies on precisely this absence of required environmental verifications in exploratory permits. This latest suit is one of a number that have been filed against the Bush administration effort to open millions of square miles of the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas to petroleum development before the end of year.
“Seismic drumbeats may drive wildlife populations completely out of the exploration areas before anyone has an opportunity to find out,” Ruch concluded. “This is a race against the clock and the oil companies have already lapped their so-called regulators.”