Leadership to Protect Atlantic Ocean Should Extend to the Arctic

A proposal that protects the Atlantic Ocean leaves the Arctic Ocean open to new offshore oil drilling, undermining our nation’s commitment to take meaningful action on climate change and increasing the risk of oil spills.

Josef Friedhuber/iStock
An icebreaker ship moves through the Arctic. A proposal that leaves the Arctic Ocean open to new offshore oil drilling undermines our nation’s commitment to take meaningful action on climate change and increases the risk of oil spills. (Josef Friedhuber/iStock)

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Federal officials yesterday released a proposed plan that would protect the Atlantic Ocean from offshore oil and gas drilling at least through 2022. This is a huge step forward for the region, and a decision that advances the president’s unprecedented commitment to taking meaningful action on climate change.

The proposed five-year lease plan, issued by an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), omitted Atlantic lease sales following sustained opposition from coastal communities rightly fearful that drilling would open the door to the threat of an oil spill. 

At the same time, this proposal leaves open the door to more offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic by scheduling two lease sales in these fragile, rapidly-changing waters. This is unacceptable, both for the Arctic and for the planet, and we’ll be calling on the President to bar Arctic drilling when final decisions are made later this year.

Before we dive into the details of what this draft five-year plan means, let’s pause for a moment of reflection. About six years ago, this happened:

BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank during an offshore drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico, claiming 11 crew workers’ lives and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  

It took BP three months to plug the seafloor gusher, which ultimately released more than 200 million gallons of crude into Gulf waters. The spill, which went down in history as one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters, left long-lasting impacts on the marine ecosystem and showed us what’s at risk from offshore drilling.

Fast-forward to today, and many of the flaws and risks of offshore drilling exposed by the disaster remain unaddressed. Perhaps chief among them is the inability to effectively respond to, contain or clean large oil spills in the ocean, even under the best conditions. Thanks to President Obama, the Atlantic is now off the table for offshore drilling.  But the proposed federal plan still envisions 13 potential offshore lease sales from 2017-2022, including 10 in the Gulf.

And as we’ve seen in Shell Oil’s years-long push to drill in the Arctic Ocean, where experts agree an oil spill would be catastrophic, the oil industry has been searching for extreme oil at all costs. The tide, though, is turning.  Last fall, after an unsuccessful drilling attempt in the Chukchi Sea and amid mounting pressure from all corners, Shell Oil suspended plans for drilling in the Arctic Ocean for now. 

There is a growing demand from the public that the government bring its decisions about offshore oil development in line with the climate science.

That science is clear.  The international scientific community has reached a consensus that the world must limit its fossil fuel production if it is to keep warming below the level that could avoid the worst consequences of climate change.  Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body of climate scientists, has concluded that the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves, let alone undiscovered reserves in places like the Arctic offshore, must remain undeveloped to give us a fair shot at staying within the warming cap.   

In December 2015, the United States and over 180 other countries committed in the Paris Agreement to reduce their carbon emissions to hold the increase in global temperature average to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”  

Yesterday’s announcement proposing to keep the Atlantic off-limits through at least 2022 is a huge step toward advancing President Obama’s visionary commitment to take meaningful action on climate change.

In disappointing contrast, however, the proposed five-year plan would open the outer continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean to lease sales from 2017-2022. Rigs could ultimately descend upon these Arctic waters to proceed with oil drilling, contributing to unsustainable carbon emissions and putting previously undisturbed areas at risk of yet another devastating spill.  

The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean is bracing. Think back to the cleanup crews that set out to help oiled sea birds and suffering marine mammals in the thick of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Now try to envision how that might have played out in a region without roads, deepwater ports, hotels, jet airports; an area so remote that the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away. That’s the reality in the Arctic, where oil spill cleanup crews would have to make their way into a dark sea completely frozen or filled with chunks of floating ice to respond to an oil slick. Scientists from the National Research Council who have studied this scenario have concluded that “personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic,” and that there is no proven adequate method for cleaning up oil in icy waters like in the Arctic.  And the government itself admits that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the Chukchi Sea is developed.

Even if we could limit the risks of offshore drilling in the Arctic, allowing it to go forward would nevertheless take our nation in the wrong direction on climate change at a time when its effects are already being felt. NOAA data suggests that 2015 was the warmest year on record. Scientists have noted that “Arctic amplification,” a phenomenon where global warming is particularly pronounced in the Arctic region, has been unusually strong lately. And global temperatures hit an all-time record high in February. And the newest science shows the Arctic Ocean is one of the places we certainly shouldn’t drill if we are to meet the ambitious climate coals of the Paris agreement.

No matter which way you slice it, extracting oil and gas to burn for energy will only result in releasing more greenhouse gas emissions, making it harder for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Opening up the Arctic Ocean to new offshore drilling takes us backwards at a time when we should be sprinting to achieve the reductions necessary to reverse this trend.

President Obama has boldly and correctly recognized the needs to change course in significant recent decisions. He rejected the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline, saying:  “[I]f we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” 

Instead of opening the door to new offshore drilling, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Obama Administration should do the following:

  • Build on these bold actions and omit the Arctic lease sales from the proposed five-year plan;
  • Deny oil company efforts to conduct seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean for oil that is now off limits; and
  • Use the president’s authority to ensure both the Arctic and Atlantic oceans never again face the threat of oil drilling, and commit to a just transition for the Gulf toward a clean energy future.

The public has until June 16 to weigh in on the proposed five-year plan.

Drew Caputo is Vice President of Litigation for Lands, Wildlife, and Oceans, leading Earthjustice’s expansive docket of litigation to protect the nation’s public lands and cherished wild places, irreplaceable species, and ocean fisheries and habitats.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.