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Going to Extremes In Arctic: Is it Worth It?

As Royal Dutch Shell continues to make perfectly clear, industry is not prepared to safely explore for oil in the pristine waters of America’s Arctic. Shell’s Arctic operations have been called the “gold standard” of the oil industry and if this is the best they’ve got, the industry is not Arctic ready.

Beyond the arguments of the Arctic being a harsh, dangerous, infrastructure-less environment, the question remains, does it make economic sense to drill for oil in this remote region now for barrels of oil in 10 years? In 12 years, cars will be averaging 54.5 mpg. Energy efficiency and a growing renewable fuel market are also making headway. U.S. oil production hit its highest level in 20 years in 2012 and it is projected to increase an additional 14 percent this year—without the extreme oil of the Arctic. In 10 years, will Americans need the extreme oil of the Arctic that Shell is so desperately seeking?

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. In addition to the potentially catastrophic local impacts, climate pollution from drilling in the region, especially black carbon emissions from the drill fleet accelerates Arctic warming and melting. Black carbon, which was reported this week to be the second-largest human contributor to climate change after CO2. It is even worse when this pollution is emitted in the Arctic where it has direct effects on ice.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should take notice on his way out the door to Colorado that our country is done with lining the pockets of the oil industry and we do care about climate change and special places like the Arctic. Tens of thousands of our supporters have already written to the Secretary and President Obama this week. Our goal is 60,000.

Caution and concern goes beyond the environmental community. As the drill ships were being prepared to head north for the summer, Lloyd’s of London warned that offshore drilling in the Arctic would “constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk.” The insurance giant also urged companies to “think carefully about the consequences of action” before exploring for oil in the region. Watching Shell's problems, Norwegian Statoil continues to defer its plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean, and French oil company Total SA ended the year by publicly calling Arctic drilling too risky for any company."

The Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a group of 45 Democratic congressional representatives, called for a formal investigation of the Kulluk incident in order to determine whether Shell should be allowed to continue drilling for oil in Alaskan waters. And my personal favorite quote; Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said recently:

Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies.

This week, former EPA administrator and the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change policy under President Barack Obama Carol Browner and former Chief of Staff for President Clinton, John Podesta delivered a strong warning to stay out of the Arctic.

Secretary Salazar has called for a 60-day investigation into Shell’s 2012 Arctic operations and media reports say there is an ongoing criminal investigation into pollution related to their drilling vessels. The top dogs from U.S. environmental groups sent Salazar a letter last week requesting a time out. We can go on about rigs hitting shores and the numerous “free passes” the Administration has granted Shell. Now is the time for the President and his team to recognize that drilling in the Arctic now just does not make sense and poses too great a risk.

Meanwhile, our attorneys here at Earthjustice will continue to represent its clients in challenging flawed and unlawful oil and gas permits that put the Arctic Ocean, its wildlife and its people at risk. Our aim is to promote a clean energy future and protect the pristine American Arctic waters from harmful industrial activities in the short term with a long-term focus of conservation based on the best available science.