On September 27, six weeks after it began exploratory drilling off the Northwest Coast of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it is abandoning its quest for Arctic oil. Shell’s decision to cease operations in the Chukchi Sea is excellent news for the Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve nearby.

The Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve is the only marine World Heritage site in the Arctic. It boasts the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus, with up to 100,000 animals congregating in the island’s rookeries, and the highest density of ancestral polar bear dens. In the summer, it is a major feeding ground for grey whale and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species.

This Arctic jewel, and the wealth of wildlife it supports, were threatened by Shell’s Chukchi Sea operations. Shell’s own risk assessments found that plumes from an oil spill could reach the buffer zone of Wrangel Island Reserve within 30 days, and a study by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management confirmed potential impacts to the reserve. The World Heritage Committee noted serious concern about the Chukchi Sea oil exploration at its summer session in Bonn, Germany.

At that meeting, the Committee reiterated that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders not to undertake such activities within World Heritage properties. The Committee added that mineral, oil and gas projects developed near World Heritage sites should not be approved until it is clear the projects will not impact the sites’ Outstanding Universal Value.

In recent decades, industry leaders have become increasingly sensitive to the implications of World Heritage status. In 2003, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) endorsed a Position Statement on Mining and Protected Areas – known as the “no-go” commitment.

Shell’s decision to leave the Chukchi Sea is another step forward in protecting World Heritage sites from the threat of inappropriate development, and ensuring these treasures are protected for the enjoyment of future generations.