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No Rest for the Arctic: New Plans Threaten Existing Protections

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© Christopher Michel

Winter is coming! So while we’re between seasons of Game of Thrones, we’re watching what’s happening in another cold place: the Arctic Ocean. And now is a good time for an update on what’s going on with oil and gas operations there.

First, the good news: in 2016, the Obama administration finalized a five-year outer continental shelf leasing plan that does not include sales in the Arctic Ocean. The 2016 plan was the first not to include either the Chukchi or Beaufort seas—or both—since the plans were first prepared in 1980. The choice not to allow new leasing makes sense, because offshore oil and gas operations are risky and dangerous—especially in remote and challenging Arctic waters. Also, companies had just walked away from the billions of dollars they’d invested in the 2000s. The overlapping environmental and financial risks far outweigh any potential benefits to operating in the Arctic Ocean now.

Now, the bad news: the Trump Administration and some members of Congress are working to change the 2016 plan and strip away other protections that safeguard the Arctic Ocean. Tell the Administration not to open new areas to offshore drilling.

Here are just some of the threats:

  • The 2016 plan prevents new lease sales in the Arctic Ocean. The Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior has already started working to replace it with one that could expose the Arctic—and other offshore areas—to new lease sales.
  • President Trump has also instructed the Department of the Interior to consider watering-down or rescinding recently enacted safety and prevention rules that were specifically designed to reduce the risks of exploration drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
  • Congress, too, is considering legislation that would expedite oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters. If passed, the legislation would create incentives to open new areas, authorize oil and gas lease sales without environmental and other analyses, and take away presidential authority to make offshore areas off-limits to oil and gas leasing.

It’s worth remembering the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the problems Shell had operating in the Arctic in 2012. The risks of a major spill are amplified in the Arctic Ocean. Once oil hits the ocean, it is extremely difficult to clean up anywhere—and even more so in the Arctic, where recovery operations would be hindered by the region’s remoteness and lack of infrastructure, or halted by extreme environmental conditions including sea ice, fierce storms, thick fog and bitter cold. We simply don’t have the technology to clean up spilled oil in icy waters.

A major spill in the offshore Arctic would affect coastal communities, whose residents depend on marine animals as a source of food. It could impact birds, fish and marine mammals—and may have lasting impacts on ocean and coastal ecosystems. Even routine operations result in noise, air and water pollution that can affect sensitive animals and ecosystems.

Moreover, there really is no reason to push companies toward oil in risky and remote places. World prices for oil are low, and the risks in the Arctic are high. We should prioritize moving toward renewable sources of energy, rather than seeking to resuscitate old, outdated ways of doing business.

Opening up the Arctic to new lease sales and watering down safety and environmental protections moves us in the wrong direction. Tell the Secretary of the Interior not to open new areas of the ocean—including the Arctic—to risky offshore drilling.

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