Bush Administration Hiding Documents Detailing Impacts of Oil and Gas Development Plans in Polar Bear Habitat

Conservation groups file suit to force disclosure
Juneau, AK (January 28, 2008) -- Today conservationists moved to force the Bush administration to disclose thousands of pages of documents related to oil and gas development plans in prime polar bear habitat. The documents all relate to government plans to lease nearly 30 million acres of the Arctic Ocean for oil and gas drilling. Advocates asked the government for these documents for several months before resorting to a lawsuit. 

“Hiding critical documents about the potential harm to polar bears from drilling their habitat is symptomatic of the administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to global warming and the melting of the Arctic,” said Brendan Cummings, ocean program director of the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Natural Resources Defense Council attorneys, representing the NRDC and Center for Biological Diversity, filed the suit under the Freedom of Information Act in the Southern District of New York after the Bush administration refused earlier requests for the documents made by Earthjustice on behalf of the conservation groups. 

The groups believe the documents could reveal that the Minerals Management Service plans to sell oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea on February 6 are ill-advised and possibly illegal. The oil and gas development is slated to occur in an area that provides crucial habitat for polar bears, endangered bowhead whales, gray whales, Pacific walrus, seals, threatened eider, and other marine birds and fish and vital subsistence grounds for Native Alaskans who reside on the North Slope. 

”If the true impacts of oil development in the Chukchi Sea were made public and properly analyzed, the area would be protected, not opened up for oil development,” said Chuck Clusen, of NRDC. 

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is scheduled to hold a hearing this Wednesday, January 30 on the relationship between the administration’s delay in protecting the polar bear and simultaneous rush to lease out its habitat in the Chukchi Sea. 

Some of the documents the litigation initiated today seeks to force MMS to release were recently disclosed to the public through a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER. Among these documents are email communications demonstrating that MMS may have vastly understated the potential development that might occur as a result of the Chukchi Sea lease sale by, for example, failing to analyze liquefied natural gas facilities and tankering in the Chukchi and Bering Seas. 

“The Bush administration appears to be hiding from the public the conclusions of its own scientists about the impacts of handing over the Chukchi Sea to the oil companies,” said Earthjustice managing attorney Eric Jorgensen. 

Opposition to leasing the offshore tracts has come from many groups and even other federal agencies. This opposition has highlighted that, among other concerns, there are no methods proven effective for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. This is especially troubling because the federal Minerals Management Service admits that oil spills are likely in the Chukchi Sea if it is opened to oil and gas development.