Trump opens Arctic Ocean to drilling, despite high risks

A polar bear on the coast of the Arctic Refuge. Coastal areas of the refuge could be devastated by a major oil spill. Image by Hugh Rose.

By Laura Bailey

UPDATE: On May 3, local Alaska Native groups along with The Wilderness Society and conservation partners filed a lawsuit against President Trump, challenging this decision to jettison a permanent ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Learn more about the lawsuit.

President Trump just signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to lift drilling restrictions that President Barack Obama imposed in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans as part of a 5-year drilling plan.

Once implemented, Trump’s April 28 order would open Arctic waters north of Alaska as well as areas off the Atlantic coast that were deemed too sensitive or risky to drill by the Obama administration. The order also intends to review oil and gas development in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic.

Trump’s offshore drilling order comes just two days after another Trump attack on environmental protections. On April 26, Trump issued an order to pave the way for stripping national monuments of protections and weaken the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to designate such monuments.

Reversing Obama’s decision to withdraw Arctic and Atlantic waters from drilling is clearly another Trump gift to the oil and gas industry and pro-fossil fuel friends in Congress, who are also aiming to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

“President Trump’s order is almost certainly an opening shot as he tries to lift protections for this fragile offshore region,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “It amounts to another brazen power grab for the oil lobby that we, and the American people, will oppose,” said Williams.

Astoundingly, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters that they had not considered climate change as a factor in this decision to expand the development of fossil fuels.

“I had not thought about climate change,” he is quoted as saying in Climatewire, a trade publication produced by E&E Publishing.

All of this comes on the heels of Trump’s March 28 executive orders aimed at dismantling climate change policies instituted under President Barack Obama.

The risks involved

Oil companies are not prepared to clean oil out of remote, icy waters. Image by Florian Schulz

Opening Arctic waters could be devastating for wildlife and the ecology of the Arctic Ocean, as well as for coastal areas of Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where animals like polar bears and Arctic fox depend upon shore areas for feeding.

Currently there is no proven technology for cleaning up oil spills in icy Arctic waters.

“Some places are simply too precious to drill, and foremost is the Arctic Ocean,” Williams said. “The chance of a tragic spill in that remote, icy area is simply too high, and the impacts to marine life and the pristine coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be devastating.”