The Palmyra Atoll is a tropical coral reef island in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It’s warm, tiny and far from the vast, frigid Arctic. And yet these distant, disparate places are as alike in one sense as any two places on Earth.
Each is an early victim of humankind’s addiction to fossil fuels and our constantly affirmed determination to stay addicted.
Like other low-lying communities around the world, the Palmyra Atoll, only a few feet from sea level, is quietly disappearing under rising ocean waters. As the Arctic melts—at a near-record pace—the ocean is warming and expanding. These islands and their inhabitants are literally at the water’s edge of global climate disaster.
But, while the evidence of global warming is clear and the science overwhelming, the unwillingness of nations to address this shared problem is perplexing. Even the Obama administration has taken actions that keep us tethered to the oil dependency that contributes so much to climate change.
In the last week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued permits authorizing Shell to drill for oil and gas in America’s Arctic Ocean as early as this summer. The issuance of permits fails to account for the full impacts of Shell’s operations, including the long-range potential that greenhouse gas and black carbon emissions—both major contributors to global climate change—will accelerate Arctic warming. The permits also will allow large ships in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to dump tons of toxic pollution into the air and water, posing threats to wildlife, and harshly impacting Alaska Native communities.
The most worrisome threat, however, is the inability of Shell and of our government agencies to deal effectively with spills in the harsh and unforgiving Arctic seas, especially if spills occur during winter when thick sea ice and furious winds and towering seas would prevent an adequate spill clean-up response. The oil spill response plans they have concocted fail to provide assurance that a major spill could be contained, let alone cleaned up.
The administration seems to be overlooking the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that temperate, easily accessed environment, it took months for a massive response team to finally quell the gushing oil. That level of response could not occur in harsh Arctic conditions, nor do we have any way of predicting whether an effective clean up is even possible.
This summer, I witnessed firsthand the quiet beauty of the Arctic landscape: the thousands of ponds, the miles of tundra, the flocks of waterfowl on every water body, and the Beaufort Sea on the horizon. I felt the power and urgency of what is at stake if our nation presses forward with risky and unproven plans to convert this remarkable place into an industrial wasteland.
During the trip, I also had the privilege of visiting with some of the Native Alaskans whose entire ways of life could be permanently disrupted by drilling activities planned and envisioned by Shell. These are people and communities that Earthjustice has worked with for years—fighting in partnership to preserve their unique way of life.
I left the Arctic more emboldened than ever to keep working to protect these communities.
I can assure you that Earthjustice is mounting a vigorous response to this latest attempt by Shell – with the blessings of our government—to recklessly place the human communities, wildlife and unmatchable beauty at risk. With our allies, we’ve beaten back previous attempts to bring drill ships into these waters, and we are determined to halt this latest effort.