Environmentalists sue feds to protect Pacific walruses from oil drilling

Environmental groups on Monday sued the federal government over a rule that would allow Arctic oil exploration in areas that could hurt Pacific walruses, which already are struggling from the loss of sea ice.

Earthjustice brought the suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups that have long been opposed to Arctic drilling.

"In recent years, sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has been melting at unprecedented rates due to human-induced climate change," the suit says. "These changes profoundly affect walruses, which now come ashore in the tens of thousands at coastal haulouts where they are vulnerable to disturbances that can cause deadly stampedes and are forced to swim long distances to find food."

The federal rule being challenged would allow the oil industry to further stress walruses through exploration operations in key foraging areas in the Chukchi Sea, the environmental groups contend.

Before the rapid melt of sea ice, walruses would use floating ice as platforms to rest, calve and wait out storms in the area of their feeding grounds on the shallow continental shelf far offshore.

But in low-ice years – like this year – walruses abandon the sea ice as it retreats northward to deeper waters. Instead, they gather by the thousands or even tens of thousands in coastal haulouts and then swim out to the feeding grounds. In September, biologists reported seeing an estimated 35,000 walruses crowded on a beach near the Northwest Alaska village of Point Lay.

One prime feeding area, the suit contends, is the Hanna Shoal, which begins about 75 miles off the Chukchi coast and covers about 9,500 square miles. Without the resting ice platforms, walruses commute miles from their haulouts to reach Hanna Shoal, the suit says.

That area overlaps with oil operations, including that of Royal Dutch Shell, which aims to resume exploration drilling in 2015 after a troubled attempt in 2012 that ended with fines and the wreck of a drilling rig grounded in a storm. Shell was barred from drilling into oil-rich zones because an oil spill containment system had failed tests, and no oil was spilled. But environmentalists say the rough start highlights the risk of drilling in the Arctic.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the matter, since it was in litigation. Shell says it will move cautiously..

"As for 2015, we continue to take a methodical approach to a potential 2015 drilling program," spokeswoman Megan Baldino said in an email. "Any final decision to go forward will depend on successful permitting and our own assessment that we are prepared to explore safely and successfully."

Shell's prized Chukchi Sea Burger prospect is near Hanna Shoal, and its crews spotted walruses during the 2012 drilling season, the lawsuit says. In all, Shell reported 338 sightings of a total of 8,678 walruses, many in groups of 200 or 300, the suit says.

Walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act but the federal law allows some exceptions, including incidental but limited killings or disturbances under special industry permits. The Fish and Wildlife Service rule being challenged allows for "the incidental take of walruses in connection with oil and gas activities." It requires oil industry airplanes and helicopters to keep a distance from walruses on land or sea ice and requires vessels to avoid approaching walruses in the water or on haulouts. The industry also must take steps to protect walruses from the "extremely high sound levels from seismic surveys," the suit said.

Under the rule finalized in June 2013, the agency concluded that only a small number of walruses would be harmed by oil and gas activities.

The environmental groups argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to properly analyze the threat. The agency acknowledged the oil industry may encounter large numbers of walruses but deferred any additional protective steps "to a later case-by-case, non-public process," the suit says.

The groups also are challenging the agency's environmental assessment and "finding of no significant impact." The suit asserts the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to properly consider travel corridors between haulouts and the shoal, and arbitrarily concluded that any impacts were properly mitigated.

Earthjustice is bringing the suit on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Oil operations have the potential to chase walruses away from food-rich foraging areas, trigger stampedes, and harm the animals with deafeningly loud seismic blasts," the environmental groups said in a written statement. "Drilling risks catastrophic oil spills that could not be cleaned up in Arctic conditions."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.