Groups call for study of Arctic Ocean corals

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two environmental groups say cold-water corals discovered near a proposed Shell Oil drilling site in the Chukchi Sea deserve additional review, but the company contends they have been studied and are not threatened.

Greenpeace USA and the Center for Biological Diversity in a letter Thursday called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to block drilling until the department conducts a supplemental environmental review of potential damage to the corals.

Shell hopes to drill at least one exploratory well this year during the summer open water season. Environmental groups have strongly opposed drilling, claiming too little is known about the Arctic ecosystem and that petroleum companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a spill in ice-choked waters.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said by email that additional study of corals is not necessary.

“The soft coral they’re touting are very common throughout the Chukchi and other areas, as well,” he said. “They are well-known to be patchy and are not unique to the Arctic. When impacted, they return within months.”

Soft coral, he said, was documented and analyzed in previous environmental work.

Theresa Eisenman, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said last month that BOEM decisions on Shell’s Chukchi exploration plan were based on years of comprehensive study and analyses of the potential effects of offshore activity, including seafloor habitats.

“These environmental studies, which included the development of information regarding the presence of Arctic corals, were specifically considered in evaluating the footprint of Shell’s proposed activities,” she said by email.

The environmental groups contend that national law requires supplemental review if significant new information appears and that sea raspberry corals fit that description. They say cold weather corals provide three-dimensional habitat on sea floor that’s often otherwise barren.

“Before letting Shell drill in the fragile Arctic, we ought to at least fully understand the risks to wildlife, including these corals,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in the announcement of the letter.