Fact Sheet
Polar Bear
Polar Bear, © Elisa Hoelzeman
Polar Bears, © Joan Robins

Fighting Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most important onshore denning habitat for America’s vanishing polar bears. Home to one of only two polar bear populations in the United States, the Southern Beaufort Sea population, roughly 1,500 bears rely on the refuge for survival. But this national treasure has been caught up in a decades-long battle between those who wish to preserve the refuge's integrity, and those pushing to open it up for oil and gas drilling.

The Problem

Industrial-scale oil and gas development could destroy the pristine nature of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain forever, damaging natural habitats and harming the wildlife that calls the area home. An oil spill in this region would not only directly harm polar bears, but would also contaminate their habitat. Even without an oil spill, some level of pollution and habitat fragmentation from oil and gas activities is inevitable with expanded development.

How We’re Helping

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently revising the Arctic refuge’s long-term management plan, the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). One of the key recommendations of the CCP could be for Congress to formally designate the refuge’s coastal plain a wilderness area. Such a designation would keep the coastal plain intact and protected from harmful human activities, including oil and gas development.

When the Obama administration asked the public what they thought about protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the response was loud and clear—more than 860,000 comments came in asking the FWS to recommend that Congress designate the refuge’s coastal plain a wilderness area. Together with our partners at the Animal Rescue Site, Care2 and Change.org, Defenders of Wildlife supporters generated 315,000 of these comments.

Where We Are Today

Despite overwhelming public support for permanent protections, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is far from safe. Big Oil and its lobbyists in Congress continue to call to open up the refuge to drilling. The big focus at the moment is on trying to pressure the administration into allowing the oil industry to conduct harmful seismic testing of oil deposits in the reserve.  Not only does the law not permit such testing, but it has already been shown to be extremely harmful, particularly to denning polar bears.  Seismic blasts can drive a mother bear to abandon her cubs in their den. The adjacent Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (often called the “Polar Bear Seas”) are under similar attack.

In 2012 Shell Oil’s “state of the art” Arctic Ocean drilling operation faced a string of malfunctions, equipment damage, the collapse of a spill-containment dome and complete loss of control of its drill rig.  And still, its drilling operation is only on temporary hold.  Both Shell Oil and the Obama administration are still looking to move forward on Shell’s oil leases in the Chukchi Sea.  The Obama administration is even considering additional lease sales in the Arctic Ocean in 2017.

Defenders will continue to fight Arctic drilling, protecting polar bears and the rest of the wildlife that call the fragile and unique region home.

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