By Brooks Hays
Kara Moriarity, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, called the lawsuit "another attempt to delay progress through frivolous litigation."
A coalition of environmental protection and wildlife conservation groups are suing the federal government for allowing exploratory oil drilling in Chukchi Sea. They argue the search for oil will harm and disrupt the habitat of Pacific walrus in the Arctic, thus violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The environmental litigators say a new rule passed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opens the door for oil exploration in the Arctic without ensuring that vulnerable walrus habitat is protected and migration patterns undisrupted. Critics of the new rule say the government is underestimating the negative effects an uptick in industrial activity will have on the sea mammal -- especially in vital feeding locations, like Hanna Shoal, where hundreds of walruses gather.
"Instead the rule defers analysis of the impact of oil and gas activities at the Hanna Shoal and mitigation of those effects to a later stage that is not subject to public comment and that the people don't get to know about until after the fact," Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe told Alaska Public Media.
Grafe and his allies say walrus habitat continues to shrink as Arctic ice melts, and commercial activity will only make their journey from dry land to food sources and back all the more difficult.
Grafe and Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The suit was filed on behalf of Alaska Wilderness, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.
Oil interests say the law already protects walruses, and that the new rule is fair and just, allowing companies the flexibility to protect walruses while exploring for oil and gas.
"It appears, at first blush anyway, this could just be another attempt to delay progress through frivolous litigation, because we've certainly seen our fair share of that," Kara Moriarity, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.