Polar bears, fracking and a vow from a conservation group to fight Caelus at Smith Bay

By Alex DeMarban, Alaska Dispatch News - October 7, 2016
A drilling rig is show in Smith Bay, southeast of Barrow, in Alaska's Arctic, in this undated handout photo. (Caelus Energy)
A drilling rig is show in Smith Bay, southeast of Barrow, in Alaska’s Arctic, in this undated handout photo. (Caelus Energy)

Claiming a Smith Bay oil field could push polar bears toward extinction, the same group that helped win critical habitat designation for the iconic animal is promising to fight Caelus Energy.

Thursday’s threat from the Center for Biological Diversity may be the first formal announcement from a conservation group saying it will seek to stop the proposed offshore development about 50 miles southeast of Barrow.

[Caelus Energy CEO calls offshore Arctic oil discovery a ‘game-changer’]

Dallas-based Caelus made worldwide news Tuesday when it announced it was sitting atop a 6 billion-barrel discovery, with possibly more oil to be found, after drilling two exploration wells last winter.

The company’s data has not been reviewed by a third-party engineering firm. The project faces steep hurdles, including high costs and permitting requirements associated with a 125-mile pipeline and other facilities.

The Tucson-based conservation group brought the 2005 petition to protect the polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, leading to a threatened listing and critical habitat designation across 187,000 square miles along much of Alaska’s coastline, including Smith Bay. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the habitat designation earlier this year.

[Caelus claims Arctic oil discovery that could rank among Alaska’s biggest ever]

Development can still proceed in critical habitat. But permitted activities may be required to take additional, potentially expensive steps to avoid hurting the environment.

The conservation group said development could spur additional Arctic oil activity and worsen climate change that is melting sea ice the polar bears use as a platform for hunting and breeding.

“More drilling and fracking would harm polar bears, ringed seals and other imperiled wildlife in the region,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the group. “Between the impacts to our climate and Alaska’s wildlife, it’s clear to us this project should never move forward. We intend to fight it.”