Oil Trumps Whales

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Northern right whale with calf, Eubalaena glacialis. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

The Bush administration wants to open 5.6 million acres in the Bering Sea off Alaska to oil and gas leasing, including an area north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. The proposal was published in Tuesday’s Federal Register by the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), as reported by the Center for Biological Diversity. North Pacific right whales once ranged from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan. They were decimated by commercial whaling and remain the most endangered large whale in the world. Fewer than 50 individuals remain in the Bering Sea population.

“Drilling in Bristol Bay would be drilling through the heart of the most important habitat of the most endangered whale on the planet,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the North Pacific right whale is to have any chance of survival, we must protect its critical habitat, not auction it off to oil companies.” The CBD reports the leasing proposal was made the same day the National Marine Fisheries Service, another federal agency, published a final rule in the Federal Register naming portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. Ooops.

“Unfortunately, for the right whale it’s one step forward, two steps back,” said Cummings. “One branch of the federal government is acting to protect the critical habitat of the North Pacific right whale, while another branch is simultaneously proposing to destroy it.” It’s also reminiscent of the recent MMS decision to lease important polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea at the same time the US Fish and Wildlife Service was considering offering the bears protection under the Endangered Species Act. Both agencies are part of Dirk Kempthorne’s Department of the Oilterior, uhm, Interior.

The latest leasing proposal would sell the North Aleutian Basin lease in 2011… One more reason we need the Right President to protect the Right Whales. Not to mention the right one to wean us off the oil economy rather than enable it.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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