(Cover image: Steven Kazlowski, www.lefteyepro.com) Two things happened Friday. One positive…and one unprecedented. [UPDATED: May 3, 2017]
Last Friday, Senate Democrats led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced legislation to strengthen protections for the Arctic Ocean and show opposition to any future risky drilling in our oceans. Similar legislation was introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) in March on the House side.
Ice covers the surface of the Arctic Ocean. (NASA)
But on the very same day, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would work to roll back protections of Arctic and Atlantic Oceans put into place by President Barack Obama. No other president prior to that announcement has ever attempted to dismantle or challenge another president’s permanent action to protect our nation’s oceans. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent, which will only undermine the powers of the office of the president to protect our nation’s natural history.
We have seen acts of bravado like this before related to the Arctic Ocean. Take Shell Oil Company’s failed attempts at drilling in the Arctic. In 2015, Shell Oil CEO Ben van Beurden said he was aware of the risks of drilling in a “fragile” environment, but claimed the reservoir Shell was exploring would be “relatively easy” from a technical perspective. Yet in 2013, Shell’s massive drilling rig, the Kulluk, broke free from its tugs and ran aground in Alaska, ended its drilling season high and dry and dismantled in Asia. Shell’s other ship, the Noble Discoverer, became stuck and unable to leave Alaska on its own power. Learning nothing from its past mistakes, Shell returned in 2015 only to abandon drilling for the “foreseeable future” when the oil giant failed to find enough oil to warrant continued exploration. Shell, ConocoPhillips and others ultimately relinquished $2.5 billion plus millions of acres in leases in the Arctic.
Shell’s Kulluk drill rig runs aground in 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)
This is proof that no oil company should drill in the Arctic. Drilling in the Arctic is risky and reckless. As we have seen time and time again, it is not a question of whether we will spill, but when. The Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez environmental disasters proved that there is no such thing as effective clean up; once oil has been spilled, the battle has been lost. The government—by its own estimate—has said that there is up to a 75 percent risk of a major spill if drilling were to move forward in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.
Our Arctic champions in the House and Senate have chosen the right path to protect the Arctic and have introduced legislation that would prohibit oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean Planning Areas of the Outer Continental Shelf. The Arctic Ocean is a vulnerable region, home to polar bears, walrus and bowhead whales, and it is facing the dual threats of climate change and development. This legislation would help solidify historic action by the Obama administration to protect our oceans. After listening to the call of Arctic communities, scientists, and the large majority of Americans who recognize that Arctic drilling is too risky and too dirty to allow, President Obama withdrew 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from future oil and gas leasing throughout the course of his administration.
A polar bear patrols the shores of the Beaufort Sea. (Alex Berger)
Saturday, April 29, marked the 100th day of the Trump administration, and millions of people across the planet joined forces at the People’s Climate March and its sister marches to show the world and its leaders our unity on the need to find solutions to the climate crisis. Climate change is real, and it is up to us to act before it is too late. One way we can do that is to oppose all efforts to initiate new drilling off of our Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and tell our elected officials across the country to do the same.
Thank you to our Arctic champions who continue to work to protect the Arctic. President Obama’s decision to preserve and protect 98% of our publicly owned Arctic Ocean and key portions of the Atlantic from the hazards and harms of offshore oil drilling was a victory for our oceans, coastal residents, children’s health and climate. President Trump and his administration might want to undo these protections, but we will continue to work hard to make sure that Big Oil stays out of the Arctic – for the sake of Arctic communities, wildlife and for future generations. It only takes a quick look at the not-so-distant past to see that drilling in the Arctic is not the right answer. Shell Oil’s story tells us that taking these risks with our nation’s precious waters is irresponsible.