Shell Oil has plans to drill in walrus territory, but environmental groups won't let the company move forward without a fight.
Environmental law group Earthjustice is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to block drilling in walruses' Arctic habitats.
In a letter speaking out against Shell, the Center for Biological Diversity's Kierán Suckling highlighted some of the potential problems that walruses would face were drilling to occur:
Just as Alaska's walruses are in a deadly struggle against melting sea ice, Shell wants to drill in their native homes. This will be devastating for walruses; not only will they be at risk to the frequent oil spills that are a regular part of ocean drilling, they'll also suffer from the loss of sea ice this drilling will produce. [Emphasis original]
From 1981 to 1999, the population of Pacific walruses fell by almost half, the U.S. Geological Survey reported in September 2014. According to the report, 1999 is the last year population data for the animals were available; the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, for example, lists the walrus as "data deficient," meaning they don't have enough information to determine whether the status of the walrus should be listed as safe, endangered or somewhere in between.
In the complaint, Earthjustice argues that drilling for oil would devastate the walruses who make the Chukchi Sea their home:
Vessels and aircraft used in oil exploration can disturb walruses, causing them to abandon their haulouts on ice or land and to avoid areas, including open waters, where those activities are occurring. Exploration drilling also runs the risk of oil spills, which could have devastating consequences if they reach aggregations of walruses. Some of these activities could take place at or near the Hanna Shoal and the walrus commuting corridor between the shoal and coastal haulouts.
Because the animals rely on ice floes to rest, warmer seas have hit walruses particularly hard. At the end of September, walruses thundered out of the Chukchi Sea by the thousands, crowding a small strip of Alaskan shore. It was an unusual and potentially fatal event, said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as stampeding walruses may harm their young in a rush to get back to the ocean.
Shell's first foray into Arctic drilling, in 2012, did not go smoothly. The company had embarked on a plan to drill up 10 oil wells, but following several accidents and safety violations, it pulled out in 2013.