ANCHORAGE -The federal government will open up nearly 46,000 square miles off Alaska's northwest coast to petroleum leases next month, a decision condemned by enviromental groups that contend the industrial activity will harm marine mammals.
The Minerals Management Agency planned the sale in the Chukchi Sea without taking into account changes in the Arctic brought on by global warming and proposed insufficient protections for polar bears, walrus, whales, and other species that could be harmed by drilling rigs or spills, the groups say.
The lease sale in an area slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania was planned without information as basic as the polar bear and walrus populations, said Pamela A. Miller, Arctic coordinator with Northern Alaska Environmental Center. The lease sale is among the largest acreage offered in the Alaska region.
"The Minerals Management Service is required to have preleasing baseline data sufficient to determine the post-leasing impacts of the oil and gas activities that will occur," Miller said. "They simply do not have that."
The agency announced it would hold a lease sale Feb. 6 in Anchorage for the ocean floor on the outer continental shelf of the Chukchi Sea, the body of water that begins north of the Bering Strait and stretches between northwest Alaska and the northern coast of the Russian Far East.
The agency is a branch of the Interior Department. Its stated mission is to manage ocean energy and mineral resources on the outer continental shelf and federal and Indian mineral revenues to enhance public and trust benefits, promote responsible use, and realize fair value.
The agency estimates the area contains 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recoverable natural gas.
The agency's director, Randall Luthi, said the government took steps to protect wildlife.
"MMS funds a robust environmental studies program to monitor the effects of industry activity in the OCS, including more than 40 ongoing Arctic-specific studies," Luthi said.