The good guys win on Arctic drilling


A band of ferocious protesters called “kayactivists” were unable to stop it, at first. And the Obama administration, which had the power to at least delay it and probably halt it, didn’t bother to try. But in the end, it turned out that time and Mother Nature have accomplished what environmentalists at first did not.

Offshore drilling in the Arctic waters off Alaska is dead for the foreseeable future:

In a setback for dreams of Arctic oil riches, Royal Dutch Shell announced early Monday morning it will indefinitely suspend its Arctic drilling off the Alaska coast after finding insufficient oil and gas in one of its exploratory wells to justify costly development.

The move puts an end — for now — to the contentious debate over whether oil and gas exploration should take place in the environmentally sensitive area off Alaska’s coast. President Obama has come under intense fire for allowing drilling to proceed, and environmentalists cheered Shell’s announcement.

It also highlights the tremendous costs and risks of drilling in the Arctic frontier, which is thought to have vast oil reserves but where little exploration has taken place so far. Daunted by the task, half a dozen companies had already put their Arctic plans on ice; while Exxon Mobil found oil in Russia’s Kara Sea, economic sanctions forced it to halt operations there.

In a statement at 1 a.m. Eastern time, Shell said that while it had successfully drilled its Burger J exploration well in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea this summer to a total depth of 6,800 feet, the indications of oil and gas “are not sufficient to warrant further exploration in the Burger prospect.” The well lies roughly 150 miles from Barrow, Alaska, a base for shuttling supplies. Shell had sent about 30 vessels, including two large drilling rigs, to take advantage of the narrow summer window when drilling is feasible.

Even though the decision was made by Shell for economic reasons, environmentalists are viewing this is a victory for the planet, and rightfully so:

“This is a victory for everyone who has stood up for the Arctic. Whether they took to kayaks or canoes, rappelled from bridges, or spread the news in their own communities, millions of people around the world have taken action against Arctic drilling,” Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard said in a statement.

There are a number of concerns that go along with oil development in the Arctic, a region already considered “ground zero” for climate change. Pollution from boat traffic in the ecologically sensitive region can create a feedback loop of melting, and then more melting. In addition, the harsh environment makes it very difficult to respond to oil spills. In 2012, Shell lost control of an oil rig during a storm. The equipment, along with 150,000 gallons of fuel and drilling fluid, ended up washed up on an island.

Leonard took the opportunity to call on President Obama to prohibit any future drilling in the area.

“Today, President Obama can also make history by cancelling any future drilling and declaring the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to oil companies. There is no better time to keep fossil fuels like Arctic oil in the ground, bringing us one step closer to an energy revolution and sustainable future,” she said.

I wholeheartedly agree with that last sentiment. From my perspective, the news that not only has drilling in the Arctic been halted this year but that it won’t resume at any time in the immediate future is an enormous relief. Since Shell launched its initial adventure in offshore drilling off Alaska in 2012, and when it made its second attempt this summer, I have been haunted by the possibility that an accident could occur that would equal or even exceed the Deepwater Horizon fiasco here in the Gulf. After all, parts of the environmentally sensitive Alaska coastline have barely recovered from the Exxon Valdez tanker wreck in 1989, a spill of much smaller magnitude than a rig blowout would most likely be.

So the news that Shell’s test well didn’t meet the company’s expectations is hugely satisfying — but it never should have reached this point. As noted here recently, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, has pledged — if elected — to use the powers of the Oval Office to ban offshore drilling in the Arctic. That is a goal that must be pursued. Today is a great day for the planet — but the world needs to seize this window of opportunity to ensure we never take this kind of foolhardy risk again.

Read more about Shell’s decision to halt offshore drilling in the Washington Post:

For more reaction from environmentalists, check out ThinkProgress:

Find out more about how humankind can curb its addiction to fossil fuels 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

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