A Big Break for Polar Bears, the Arctic

Polar bears and other wildlife in the Arctic just got a crucial break.

On Wednesday, an appeals court said the federal Interior department wrongly sold leases to drill for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

The decision confirms what so many of us have known all along: we have no business approving offshore drilling in the Arctic -- a high-risk environment where an oil spill would be impossible to clean up and put wildlife directly in harm's way.

The lease sale, approved by the Bush administration in 2008, offered nearly 30 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling -- an area larger than Pennsylvania. Alaska native groups and conservationists challenged the sale in court which led to this week's decision.

Simply put, the Chukchi Sea is no place for drilling ships. It's where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds. Hardly the place for a polluting and dangerous industrial work site.

This week's ruling, from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is the second time a court has found that the government, in approving these leases, ignored basic legal protections designed to safeguard this incredible landscape and all its inhabitants.

Unfortunately the Obama administration, following in the steps of the Bush administration, has been slow to get the message. Federal agencies seem perfectly willing to open the Arctic landscape to drilling despite the monumental risks to people and wildlife.

Many of these wildlife species -- including polar bears -- are already at serious risk from global warming, which is melting away the ice they need to survive. The last thing they need is an oil spill to contend with.

We're happy with this week's ruling, of course, especially that it could help the Arctic's wildlife. But we shouldn't have to go to court every time the Arctic Ocean comes under assault. It's time for the Obama administration to rethink Arctic drilling and take this dangerous activity off the table for good.

Photo: Kathy Crane, NOAA Arctic Research Program