Federal offshore drilling plans will include the Chukchi Sea. Photograph © Robert Glenn Ketchum

Feds hope to drill Arctic Ocean, despite climate change, oil spill risks

Less than a week after announcing a joint U.S/Canada agreement to combat climate change and prioritize Arctic conservation for the benefit of indigenous peoples, the Obama administration released a proposed five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing that includes Alaska’s Arctic Ocean.

On March 10, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to enact a series of initiatives to protect Arctic lands and waters, strengthen safety and environmental rules for oil and gas projects, and to designate shipping corridors with reduced impact in mind. That was great news.

But five days later, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposed lease sales in the Beaufort Sea in 2020 and the Chukchi Sea in 2022, despite the risk of a major oil spill, the reality of climate change, and proof by Shell in 2012 and 2015 of the oil industry’s inability to safely mobilize and drill in one of the most extreme — and fragile — environments on Earth.

Map: General locations of proposed lease sales in the Arctic Ocean

“We are disappointed that BOEM dismissed major risks and climate change concerns, and has moved a step closer to finalizing plans for further oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean,” said Lois Epstein, an Alaska-licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. “This remote, fragile and rapidly warming environment is simply too important to drill.”

Overall, the U.S./Canada pact should result in cleaner air and water for Arctic communities than if the agreement were not in place. And higher safety and environmental standards could reduce — but not eliminate — the chance of disastrous oil spills and industrial pollution. For low-lying villages on Alaska’s fragile coast, the promise to prioritize the fight against climate change is especially welcome.

Sensitive coastlines at risk

If offshore drilling occurred in the Arctic Ocean, the sensitive coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could be greatly harmed, depending on the location and conditions in place at the time of a major oil spill. And whichever tracts are leased, the added damage to the climate is indisputable. Producing and burning Arctic Ocean oil would release massive quantities of greenhouse gases, further warming our atmosphere.

“This remote, fragile and rapidly warming environment is simply too important to drill.” — Lois Epstein, Arctic Program Director

“A clean, healthy Arctic Ocean is essential to the survival of Native communities on Alaska’s northern coast. A major spill would be devastating,” Epstein said. “We hope the Obama administration will reflect on its recent agreement with Canada to fight climate change and increase efforts to conserve the Arctic environment for indigenous peoples, and then remove the entire Arctic Ocean from the final version of BOEM’s plan.”

President Obama has pledged to make the fight against climate change part of his legacy. Now is the time for him to act on those promises, and protect America’s fragile Arctic Ocean by ensuring it will not be fouled by drill rigs, industrial noise and oil spills.


Originally published at wilderness.org.

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