Groups sue to protect walrus from drilling

AP News
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Posted: Nov 10, 2014 7:30 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Six environmental groups sued Monday to throw out a federal agency rule that concludes oil exploration off Alaska's northwest coast has a negligible effect on walrus.

The groups claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has understated the effects of booming seismic airguns, ship traffic and other industrial activity as it promulgated a five-year walrus harassment rule.

The agency has acknowledged there could be more significant disturbances when walrus gather in an important feeding area, Hanna Shoal, said Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe, but promised to review the potential for harm in a forum that does not allow public comment. That's illegal, Grafe said.

"What we're looking for is a rule to be vacated because the agency is trying to have it both ways," Grafe said.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said by email the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The six groups — Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands — say petroleum exploration and drilling will harm a species already suffering from the effects of climate warming by chasing walrus out of important feeding areas.

"These oil company activities in their critical feeding areas will just add to their woes," Grafe said.

Chukchi Sea walrus, a population shared with Russia, spend winters in the Bering Sea. When summer arrives and ice begins to melt, females and their young ride the sea ice edge north through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. Walrus cannot swim indefinitely and use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams and worms on the shallow continental shelf.

In recent years, sea ice has receded north beyond shallow continental shelf waters and into remote Arctic Ocean water, where depths exceed 2 miles and walrus cannot dive to the bottom. Starting in 2007, without sea ice over shallow water, walrus have come to Alaska shores to rest in record numbers. An estimated 35,000 gathered near Point Lay this year, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in groups that leaves young animals vulnerable to stampedes.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC has conducted preliminary drilling in the Chukchi and could return next year. One of its prime prospects is about eight miles from Hanna Shoal, a 9,500-square mile critical feeding area that begins 75 miles off the village of Wainwright. Walrus forced to rest on shore continue to make an exhausting swims to feed there, Grafe said, but could be chased off by drilling.

The lawsuit seeks to vacate the current five-year rule, which kicked in last year, and come up with a version that accurately assesses the effects of exploration within Hanna Shoal. The agency also could require that oil companies apply to operate near Hanna Shoal under a different rule that is subject to public notice and comment, Grafe said.