Rushing to Judgment in the Arctic

President Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are in a hurry to open Arctic waters to risky offshore drilling. Last week, they kicked off a planning process for a new oil and gas lease sale in the Beaufort Sea—even though the Beaufort Sea is currently off-limits to new leasing.

What’s going on here?

Under the existing national program that governs offshore leasing from 2017 to 2022, the entire Arctic Ocean—including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the coast of Alaska—is closed to new oil and gas lease sales. That program was completed after a thorough public process and was supported by millions of public comments. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has started to develop a new five-year program that could allow risky drilling off virtually the entire U.S. coastline, including the Arctic. In fact, Secretary Zinke released a draft proposed program for 2019–2024 earlier this year. Tell Secretary Zinke that’s a big step in the wrong direction!

We hope the administration will do the right thing and abandon the new planning process. If it continues, however, a new five-year program couldn’t be completed until sometime in 2019. The administration is supposed to be carefully considering its choices in the planning process and new sales in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas are not allowed until the plan is finalized.

But President Trump and Secretary Zinke have decided not to wait around. Instead, they are putting the cart before the horse by preparing for a Beaufort Sea lease sale before finalizing the new national program. They haven’t even released an assessment of the new national program’s environmental impacts—but they are still plowing ahead with preparations for a Beaufort Sea lease sale.

The law establishes a clear, step-by-step process for planning and leasing. In their rush to drill in the Beaufort Sea, President Trump and Secretary Zinke appear to be disregarding that process and pre-determining the outcome of the national five-year planning process. That’s not only bad governance, it puts our ocean at risk.

And there’s a lot at stake. The Beaufort Sea hosts an amazing abundance of marine life. Beluga whales congregate along the break between the continental shelf and deeper ocean waters. On the sea ice, ringed seals maintain dens in the snow where they raise their pups. In Harrison Bay and the Colville Delta, Arctic cisco and pink and chum salmon swim in the waters, while red-throated and yellow-billed loons and king and spectacled eiders gather to prepare for their fall migration. Enormous bowhead whales—some of which can live to more than 200 years old—follow ancient pathways on their seasonal migration through these Arctic waters. The Alaska Native people who live in communities along the Beaufort Sea coast are an integral part of this ecosystem, which supports a subsistence way of life that stretches back for thousands of years.

There is no compelling reason to rush to sell leases in the Beaufort Sea. In fact, in recent years, oil companies have walked away from investments there. Moreover, drilling operations in these waters could cause enormous damage. A major oil spill could have severe consequences and would be all but impossible to clean up. Even routine oil and gas operations create noise, air, and water pollution, and generate air and vessel traffic that can cause significant harm.

The Trump Administration is already headed in the wrong direction with its proposal for a new national five-year leasing program that could dramatically expand offshore drilling off almost the entire U.S. coastline. Instead of rushing toward a new and unnecessary lease sale in the Beaufort Sea, tell the Trump Administration not to open new areas of the ocean to risky offshore drilling.

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