Oil giant Shell will soon begin exploratory drilling in Arctic waters, including in the sensitive ecosystem of the Chukchi Sea. Environmental activists have criticized the company for putting sea life at risk, and now their argument has gained new weight: Marine biologists conducting research there have discovered thick accumulations of soft coral - sensitive, unique, and critical for the survival of many fish in the waters that Shell plans to tamper with.
On July 30, Greenpeace submarine pilot and marine biologist John Hocevar collected two specimens of a type of coral known as sea raspberry, or gersemia rubiformis. It and other species of coral cover the seabed in large numbers.
"Discovering abundant corals in the Arctic waters right where Shell plans to drill this summer shows just how little is known about this fragile and unique region," said Hocevar. "Melting sea ice is not an invitation for offshore drilling, it's a warning that this pristine environment should be protected and dedicated to science."
The environmental impact statement for Shell's drilling program does not mention the corals, although the company has insisted it knew about their presence there. Failure to acknowledge this in the statement is seen as a troubling oversight, as the corals are very sensitive to disturbance.
"Why doesn't the environmental impact statement for Shell's Chukchi drilling program adequately discuss Arctic corals at the proposed drilling location?" asked Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor of conservation biology. "What else has the public not been told about the environment of the proposed drill sites?"
Over one million people have joined Greenpeace's "Save the Arctic" campaign, through which activists argue that Shell has no right to risk tainting the environment. The campaign calls for a ban on offshore drilling and unsustainable fishing in Arctic waters.
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is currently in the Arctic in order to explore the marine habitats that will potentially be affected by Shell's profit-driven disruption. In monitoring the delicate region, environmental activists are ensuring that a watchful eye is kept on an oil company that, it now seems, has kept information from the public when it was convenient for them.
Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner Jackie Dragon, who called this struggle "one of the defining environmental battles of our age," added, "Shell wants to exploit melting sea ice in the Arctic to drill for more fossil fuels. But now a global movement is mobilizing to protect this region."
Time is running out, however, as Shell is currently awaiting final permits to begin drilling in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and could start as early as next week. The oil company argues that Greenpeace is interfering, and that it will seek legal action against the organization.
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace's International Executive Director, counter-argued, "Maybe, just maybe, these are the desperate actions of a company which is slowly sinking ship, if you will, one whose current business strategy is limited, as more and more people mutiny, realizing that we can no longer carry on with business as usual when it comes to plundering the planet."
Photo: The Esperanza monitors the Arctic region currently at risk due to Big Oil. Greenpeace