The Scoop on Ice

The Obama administration just delivered another blow to Arctic drilling. What’s next in the fight to protect one of our nation’s most pristine ecosystems?

Arctic wolf
An Arctic wolf. (Jim Brandenburg/National Geographic Creative)

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Recently, Shell announced to the world that it will end offshore drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean for the foreseeable future. In addition, the Obama administration just announced that it will cancel upcoming oil and gas lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It also denied requests for the extension of leases currently held by Shell and Statoil in the Arctic Ocean.

Given this breaking news, what’s the next step in the fight to protect one of our nation’s most pristine and vulnerable ecosystems? Earthjustice attorneys give us the scoop.

Q: Let’s start with Shell’s news. The company has said that it is suspending for the foreseeable future offshore oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, but it still holds 275 leases in the Chukchi Sea. What happens to those leases?

In 2008, the Bush administration offered 30 million acres of this sensitive Arctic ecosystem for oil and gas leasing. Companies like Shell purchased those leases, and we’ve been challenging them ever since on the grounds that the lease sale violated a bedrock environmental law. Due to our challenge, courts have twice sent the leases back to the government for reconsideration. We are continuing to challenge a recent decision to reaffirm the leases, which currently are not due to expire until 2020.

Our most recent victory forced the government to concede that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the Chukchi Sea is developed, and there is no way to clean or contain such a spill. Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean would also exacerbate climate change, and so it’s not something that President Obama should be green lighting if he is serious about leaving a positive climate legacy. If we prevail in the most recent challenge, the president will have one more chance to void the leases.

Q: In light of Shell’s announcement, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is pressing his argument that the federal government should allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to help alleviate some of the state’s budget issues. Could that actually happen?

Pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is nothing new for the state of Alaska. It’s been trying to do so for decades, and now it’s using Shell’s announcement to help bolster the argument. But the facts remain the same. The Arctic refuge is a national treasure and one of the last remaining truly wild places. This untouched landscape is home to more than 250 animal species, such as polar bears and wolverines, as well as more than 180 species of birds that migrate there each year from all 50 states. 

For these reasons and others, it’s unlikely that the Obama administration has any intention of opening the refuge to oil and gas drilling. In fact, earlier this year President Obama proposed that more than 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be deemed “wilderness,” and therefore off-limits to oil and gas development. Many Americans support the president’s proposal and, at least in this administration , the State’s tired push for drilling in this special place will not get more traction just because Shell has departed for now.

Q: Last summer, Earthjustice challenged the Port of Seattle’s decision to allow Shell to dock in Seattle’s waters. Did the legal challenges in Seattle make a difference in the Arctic fight?

You bet. The legal challenges supported a growing movement of public opposition to Shell drilling that, in the end, succeeded in helping to show that the Arctic Ocean fight is really a climate fight. That helped put the issue squarely on the national stage.

Q: Industry observers have cited plummeting oil prices as one reason that Shell pulled out of the Arctic. Some argue that, if organizations like Earthjustice continue to limit fracking operations in the U.S., it will drive up the price of oil and encourage more Arctic drilling. Is that the case?

First of all, the dramatic increase in oil and gas drilling using fracking techniques is causing threats of many kinds around the country, and out-of-control fracking must be opposed to protect people, lands and water. Also, there is no clear link between limits on fracking and internationally-set oil prices. 

And, whatever the price of oil, Arctic Ocean drilling doesn’t make sense because of the risk to the region and to the climate. Scientists specifically identify drilling Arctic Ocean resources as incompatible with meeting our climate goals.

We need to stop thinking of our energy strategy in terms of only choosing oil or gas. There are greener, more sustainable options, and they can be found right in our backyard. Grid penetration of wind and solar has increased dramatically in some states, including California and Texas. Current analysis shows we can reliably and affordably get the significant majority of our power from renewable sources.  As clean power becomes more affordable and available, it becomes cheaper and easier to achieve the greenhouse gas reductions we genuinely need to start living our clean energy future now.

Q: Now that Shell has temporarily stopped its operations, what is left for President Obama to do in the Arctic?

Shell’s departure is great news for the Arctic Ocean, and the president should seize on the decision to further protect the Arctic from the threats of offshore drilling. Given that zero companies are showing an interest in Arctic Ocean oil exploration, drilling for oil in the Arctic is fundamentally incompatible with meeting our climate goals and maintaining a livable planet, drilling threatens a unique and struggling ecosystem, and the American public is beginning to understand how unnecessary and damaging it would be to drill there, the president should take action now to take Arctic Ocean drilling off the table.

Recently, the Interior Department took some positive steps in the right direction, cancelling new leases sales in the Arctic Ocean that were previously scheduled for 2016 and 2017. And the agency denied requests from Shell and Statoil to extend the terms of the leases they already have in the Arctic Ocean.

Q: Even if we ban oil and gas drilling in America’s Arctic waters, what can we do to keep other countries from drilling in the area?

Thanks to fierce opposition from many Americans, a growing national understanding of the risks locally and globally of Arctic drilling, significant real-world obstacles, the high cost of operating in the Arctic Ocean, and the growing likelihood of essential effective limits on carbon pollution, Arctic drilling may  no longer be the golden egg of the oil and gas drilling industry. And the change is not just in the U.S.  As the New York Times recently reported, offshore projects from Russia to Norway to Canada have all been shelved. That said, the Arctic drilling threat is far from over, and so President Obama should lead by example to end drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

In just a few weeks, the world’s leaders will meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to develop a new global climate agreement. For the first time, the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas polluters, the U.S. and China, are coming to the negotiating table with serious commitments to rein in their emissions. Also for the first time, developing countries, including Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, are making similarly serious commitments to reduce their emissions, and India just rolled out its action plan. Meanwhile, the E.U., which has already achieved major emissions reductions, is pushing for more.

Though these climate actions don’t come close enough to avoiding catastrophic climate change, imagine what kind of message that would send to other countries if we were to draw a line in the sand on Arctic Ocean drilling. 

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.