RIP, Arctic drilling…but is it too late?


There’s been a lot of news on the environment this week — some of it very good and some of it very bad. Like the old joke, let’s start with the good news first. Since the dog days of summer, when disappointed protesters called “kayaktavists” watched Shell’s massive drilling rig depart Seattle’s harbor for the Arctic waters off Alaska,developments on that front have been highly positive. I give a lot of credit to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was brave enough to break from her recent employer, President Obama, and call for an end to offshore drilling in U.S. waters off Alaska. That seemed the only sensible position, given that the region’s extreme weather not only makes a catastrophic, Deepwater Horizon-style accident more likely but also would make a major spill much more complicated to clean up.

Since then, Shell abandoned its costly and ill-advised but government-permitted exploration in the Arctic. And now it looks as the Obama administration is seizing the moment to ensure that such a risky experiment never happens again:

Citing Shell’s decision to indefinitely cancel plans to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea after drilling an initial, unsuccessful test well, the Interior Department late Friday announced it was canceling two Arctic ocean oil lease sales scheduled for 2016 and 2017. The agency also cited a lack industry nominations of specific areas of exploration interest as a reason for not going forward.

The sales canceled involved one lease in the Chukchi Sea and another in the Beaufort Sea, to the northwest and north of Alaska, respectively.

“In light of Shell’s announcement, the amount of acreage already under lease and current market conditions, it does not make sense to prepare for lease sales in the Arctic in the next year and a half,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a statement. The move represented a second major setback to Arctic oil drilling plans that as recently as a month ago had seemed to be moving forward smoothly.

Environmental organizations, which had widely protested Shell’s plans and lambasted the Obama administration for approving them, quickly applauded the news Friday.

“Following Shell’s recent decision to halt its Arctic Ocean drilling for the foreseeable future, the Department of the Interior made an entirely reasonable decision today to not hold new lease sales in 2016 and 2017 in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, respectively. Because of Shell’s failure to find significant oil in the Chukchi Sea, new Arctic Ocean lease sales—which require extensive government preparation and costs—would likely be unsuccessful,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director at the Wilderness Society, in a statement.

This is fantastic news — and a stunning reversal of fortune. It’s reassuring to be able to cross “devastating Arctic oil spill” off the list of things to be worried about. However, it’s also important to remember that the risk of an accident isn’t the only reason why the Alaska oil-exploration issue was so important. To many folks, myself included, the permission to drill in the Arctic for Shell was also an alarming sign that the government still isn’t taking the threat of global warming, from our addiction to fossil fuels, seriously enough.

Just today, there was another depressing report that suggests maybe our moves to reduce greenhouse gas pollution are happening both too little and too late. To quote Al Gore’s warnings on climate change, the world is on fire:

Another month, another temperature record falls. Last month was the hottest September on record, increasing chances that 2015 will be the hottest year in centuries, according to a new federal report.

The average temperature across the globe was 60.62ºF (15.9ºC). That’s a 1.62ºF (0.9°C) higher than the average September in the 20th century. The trend held true on both land and ocean surfaces.

The September record marks the fifth month in row of record temperatures, making it even more likely that 2015 will be the hottest year on record. A report released last month from the British Met Office suggested that record for 2015 was a foregone conclusion and 2016 would likely be even hotter.

A number of factors contributed to the elevated temperatures, including end to a so-called global warming hiatus—which scientists say was caused by a variety of factors, including stronger trade winds and volcanic eruptions that shielded the Earth from the sun—that slowed the rate of climate change for the first decade of the 21st century. El Niño, a climate phenomenon triggered by unusually warm temperatures along the equatorial Pacific, has also struck this year and is expected to continue into the spring of 2016. Forecasters say it may be the biggest El Niño on record.

In other words, the kind of thinking that supported the new prohibitions on Arctic drilling, and which will hopefully kill the Keystone XL pipeline project for good, should have started 10, 20, 30…maybe even 40 years ago. That’s no excuse not to act now. It just means there’s a lot of work to do, and not very much time.

Read coverage of the Arctic drilling decision from the Washington Post:

Check out Time magazine on the hottest September on record:

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on the Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana in  my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This