A group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday to challenge a rule that would allow energy companies to harm mammals in the Arctic while drilling for oil next year.
The coalition, which includes environmental and conservation groups like Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing firms like Shell to drill and explore in areas in the Chuchki Sea with high walrus populations—vital spaces that are dwindling as climate change continues to melt sea ice in the Arctic, the coalition says.
Their complaint pertains to a regulation that allows for “the incidental take of walruses in connection with oil and gas activities.” Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the term “take” is broadly defined and means “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine animal.” More specifically, harassment can refer to “torment” or “annoyance,” or “causing disruption of behavioral patterns… migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”
The coalition noted on Monday that the rule contradicts the Service’s own admission that these kinds of operations could have widespread consequences for walruses in crucial Chuchki Sea areas like the Hannah Shoal, a 30-mile shelf off the coast of northwest Alaska. The coalition notes that operations could result in chasing away walruses from natural feeding habitats, triggering stampedes, or harming them with seismic blasts. It also notes that drilling also carries the risk of catastrophic oil spills.
Walruses depend on ice caps for resting, raising their young, feeding, and avoiding predators, the lawsuit (pdf) states. Allowing drilling operations in these vulnerable areas further threatens their survival.
“Walruses are already under tremendous stress from climate change,” said Earthjustice attorney Eric Grafe. “[T]heir sea ice home is literally melting away. Without adequate analysis, the challenged rules would add to walruses’ woes by allowing drilling and risking oil spills in the areas most important for food and resting.”
The lawsuit comes as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (OEM) publishes a draft of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), in which the bureau slightly raised its estimate of recoverable oil from companies that are primed to start explorations.
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