Washington, DC — The Interior Department has shunned urgent pleas from its own scientists for greater safeguards to protect polar bears from oil spills and other threats entailed in Arctic Ocean drilling plans, according to internal e-mails released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Interior cited the delay in listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act as the reason it would not impose “requirements” on oil companies to minimize risks for polar bear populations.
In a January 17, 2008 hearing before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director Randall Luthi stated, “We wouldn’t be proceeding with this sale if we weren’t comfortable that we had enough knowledge, enough data to say that we can adequately see that the polar bear is protected. I’m confident we have done all we needed to do.” In internal e-mails, MMS own polar specialists, however, vehemently voiced an opposite view.
In a January 26, 2007 e-mail, for example, former MMS polar bear biologist James Wilder pleaded with his superiors to hold leasing activity until even minimal protections could be ensured –
- “I do not see how the MMS can pass the ‘red face’ test …when polar bear issues which have been raised have been repeatedly and completely ignored by both Shell and MMS”;
- “[R]equests for critical information” on polar bear impacts have been “repeatedly denied”; and
- Large polar bear populations “are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill.”
The e-mail refers to the “extreme pressure” placed on MMS scientists to speed environmental reviews of plans to open up the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi Seas to oil and gas leasing. In the latest action, MMS pledges to offer the Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193 on February 6, 2008.
“MMS scientists in Alaska are being asked to sign off on environmental evaluations they believe are dishonest,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there has been a steady exodus of the agency’s top specialists in Alaska since 2005. “At Interior, the absence of definitive information detailing harm to the polar bear is seen as a green light – ignorance is bliss has become official agency policy.”
Even the mitigations suggested by MMS cannot be enforced due to the delay by Interior’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in including the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. As a result, oil companies are not required to abide by suggested safeguards. In a June 22, 2006 e-mail, MMS Alaska Regional Director John Goll relayed the message that MMS could not impose “requirements” on oil companies:
“The response from HQ was no. The law does not require companies to get an IHA [Incidental Harassment Authorization], and so from an MMS-wide viewpoint, we cannot go there outright.”
“Contrary to Director Luthi’s testimony, his own experts say there is neither reliable evidence nor adequate assurances that the fragile resources within Interior’s custody will be protected,” added Ruch, pointing to Congressional calls to delay further leases until the status of the polar bear has been determined. “Interior’s Arctic Ocean oil drilling program is a textbook case of political manipulation of both science and scientists to serve a previously agreed-upon result.”