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WWF Asks Government to Prohibit Oil and Gas Activities in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas

WWF today called on the U.S. government to prohibit offshore oil and gas drilling activities in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off of Alaska, and not to issue any new permits until companies demonstrate that they can drill safely in the region.

“WWF wants much more than the 60-day review of the Kulluk incident that the Interior Department announced,” WWF-US Arctic Program Officer Verner Wilson said at an Arctic drilling briefing on Capitol Hill. Wilson was referring to the Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground on a wildlife-rich island in Alaska in late December, carrying about 150,000 gallons of fuel and related fluids. It was the latest of a series of mishaps since the company received permission from the U.S. government in the summer of 2012 to conduct exploratory offshore drilling in the state’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Kulluk sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska,

Concerns over Arctic drilling intensified when the Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska last month.

“Shell’s fiasco last month illustrates that oil and gas companies are not ready to drill,” said Wilson, a Yup’ik Eskimo from Alaska. “What is the rush? The oil is not going away. If drilling is going to happen, why not do it right?”

WWF also pressed for the allocation of adequate federal funds to support the U.S. Coast Guard so that the agency is prepared to respond to a spill in Alaska if drilling is allowed. The ability to do so in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas is extremely difficult. The seas are rough and the region is very remote – almost 1,000 miles from the closest Coast Guard station. In comparison, there are 30 Coast Guard stations within 500 miles of the area of the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred several years ago.

The Arctic Ocean is a priority for WWF because of the abundance of wildlife here and in the Bering Strait – the waterway most oil and gas ships would need to travel through to get to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The strait is known as the “Marine Mammal Superhighway,” given the plethora of seabirds, polar bears, walrus, whales, seals and other species that migrate through there. The Chukchi and Beaufort seas also are rich with fish and invertebrates. More than 66 fish species and 350 invertebrate species were found in the Chukchi Sea, according to the first-ever species survey of the Chukchi Sea in 2012, which was released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week.

“I knew there were fish in the Chukchi, but did not know there were that many species,” said Wilson, who is an Alaska salmon fisherman and travels to the Bering Strait region several times a year to visit family. “We shouldn’t allow any drilling until we understand more about this mysterious ecosystem.”

WWF also recognizes that people – not just wildlife – could be impacted by the negative effects of oil and gas drilling. Wilson, for example, said whale meat is an important source of food for his family and seal fur keeps them warm during the dark and frigid Alaska winters.

“Our family values are rooted in subsistence traditions,” said Wilson, who donned in a seal skin tie and vest made by his grandmother during the briefing. “That’s why a clean ocean is very important to our way of life, and why I hope the oil companies and government agencies will take these accidents seriously.”

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