Co-authored by Erica Cirino
In July 2015, Portland, Oregon, became the center of the debate on Arctic drilling. Greenpeace activists lowered themselves from the bridge with ropes, brandishing bright yellow flags declaring “Save the Arctic.” Others assembled in the Willamette River in kayaks, shouting “Shell No!” Together, these activists managed to physically block Royal Dutch Shell’s Fennica icebreaker ship from passing under the St. Johns Bridge for 41 hours. Onlookers on the waterfront cheered on the activists, who were eventually forced by local police and the Coast Guard to leave and allow the ship to pass.
A few months later, Royal Dutch Shell announced it would be shutting down its Arctic oil operations. Yet several other oil and gas companies remained, still drilling for petroleum, and they appeared in no hurry to leave.
Now there’s a new twist in the story of fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic. Just last week President Obama announced an effectively irreversible ban on new oil and gas drilling in 98 percent of U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean, an area covering more than 100 million acres. Obama’s announcement was made jointly with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s who has decided to ban all new oil and gas drilling in his country’s Arctic waters.
“This is a historic victory in our fight to save our Arctic and Atlantic waters, marine life, coastal communities and all they support,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Obama’s decision is based on the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, passed in 1953 under President Eisenhower. The act gives the president the right to sell offshore leases to companies that want to drill for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, the ground under the seas that surround the U.S.
Obama has designated most of the currently unleased lands as “protected,” and thus unavailable for drilling. No new leases for Arctic drilling will be granted into the foreseeable future; Obama’s rules are considered permanent because the act on which they’re based didn’t include any way to reestablish Continental Lands as appropriate for drilling once they’ve been protected.
Companies with existing leases will be permitted to continue drilling on Arctic lands until their leases expire between 2017 and 2020.
“We join Alaskan communities in praising this decision,” said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. “And Greenpeace stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Gulf South, who have for too long seen their lands, homes, waters, and health sacrificed to the oil and gas industry.”
Two years ago scientists revealed the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This warming is melting sea ice, sending sea levels surging ever higher and displacing people living in coastal regions in the Arctic and all over the world. Arctic warming is also harming wildlife, most famously polar bears, but also walruses, whales, seals and seabirds. The cold-loving animals’ ranges are getting smaller and smaller, their availability of natural food sources is diminishing and their habitats are degrading.
Warmer temperatures are only one consequence of fossil fuel production and use. Oil spills can—and have—devastated marine environments in the Arctic and beyond. Currently the Arctic produces just a tiny amount of oil; most activity there is exploratory. Yet the threat of a spill would be serious if oil and gas production in the region were to ramp up.
The Arctic isn’t the only place on Earth threatened by oil and gas extraction. Just think of the many fossil fuel disasters that have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the busiest offshore drilling regions in the world. There’s the Taylor Energy site, which has been leaking oil for the past 12 years; the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout; the spill from Shell’s Brutus platform in May 2016, the Pemex oil tanker fire in September 2016…and more.
The Arctic should just be the—pardon the pun—tip of the iceberg when it comes to the end of oil drilling. What’s needed most to protect wildlife, people and the planet from the harmful effects of climate change and fossil fuel extraction is a transition away from carbon-based energy to renewables like wind, solar and geothermal.