Arctic Ocean in trouble: Trump to expand offshore drilling

A spill in the Arctic Ocean would prove disastrous for animals that rely on the frigid waters for survival.

Sarah Sonsthagen/USFWS

Trump is expected to undo Obama-era decision that protected Alaska’s Arctic and the nation’s Atlantic shores from dangerous offshore oil drilling.

On Friday, President Trump is expected to sign an executive order to open protected offshore waters to oil drilling--a brazen power grab that exceeds Trump’s legal power.

The news comes on the heels of Trump’s April 26 order to pave the way for stripping national monuments of protections and his March 28 executive orders aimed at rolling back climate change policies and reducing efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump’s order is expected to:

  • Reverse Obama's decision to indefinitely withdraw most Arctic and some Atlantic waters from offshore drilling out of concern for the health of coastal communities and aquatic ecosystems.
  • Revise Obama’s 5-year offshore plan released in late 2016 to include some previously considered leases.

Combined, they are yet another sell out of our lands to Trump’s allies in the oil lobby. 

Trump’s illegal attack on oceans

Reversing Obama’s decision to withdraw most Arctic and some Atlantic waters from drilling has no legal justification. Just as legal experts argue Trump has no power to revoke Bears Ears National Monument, some argue the same for reversing Obama’s executive decision to use a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prevent new oil and gas leasing in most of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and parts of the Atlantic Ocean. This attack on our oceans will likely land the Trump administration in court, resulting in a lengthy legal battle.

Trump is expected to set his sights on the Arctic Ocean, potentially opening up parts to drilling protected under Obama. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Besides the illegality of his action, Trump would revoke protections for 125 million acres of Arctic waters and 4 million acres of Atlantic Ocean underwater canyons—an unprecedented attack by a president on ocean habitats. With the Arctic Ocean already bearing the brunt of our changing climate, offshore drilling would pose one more threat to an ecosystem in an already precarious position.

Revising Obama’s 5-year offshore plan is more straightforward—and legal—but will require years of review and public input. The Interior Department will immediately get to work after Trump’s order to rewrite the 2017 and 2022 lease sales to now include parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans that were omitted during Obama’s tenure.  

Whereas Obama sought to protect Arctic habitat and U.S. coastal communities and take critical steps to combat climate change, it’s become all too clear Trump will tear away any protections and disregard steps to stop global warming. This contrasts starkly with the stance of 59 percent of Americans who support permanently protecting the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and the tens of thousands who celebrated Obama’s directives late last year as a major victory for conservation and our climate.

Reversing critical Arctic Ocean protections

Obama’s move placed a vital check on the fossil fuel industry and protected coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—itself threatened by recent drilling proposals—and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska which—despite its name—is an ecologically important part of Alaska for migratory birds, caribou herds and other wildlife.

Wildlife will suffer, as the industry is ill-equipped to deal with oil spills in unforgiving Arctic waters. Photo: Peter Mather

If left in place, Obama’s decisions would safeguard habitat for northern Alaska’s animals that depend upon Arctic waters and coastal lands, including polar bears, Arctic fox, sea and migratory birds, and numerous species of whales and seals. Subsistence resources for coastal villages would also be guarded from the disastrous impacts of oil spills.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would prove disastrous

Repeatedly, the oil and gas industry has shown itself to be incapable of safely operating in such a remote and challenging environment as the Arctic Ocean. In the 2012 and 2015 drilling seasons, Shell had several mishaps that foreshadowed the dangers of offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and its direct threat to sensitive coastlines.

The Interior Department even projected that there was a 75 percent chance of at least one major oil spill in Arctic waters resulting from potential oil development following its 2008 Arctic Ocean lease sale. With the nearest U.S. Coast Guard base approximately 800 miles away and the stormy, icy seas extremely hazardous, the industry is simply not equipped to deal with an incident nor does it have the technology to recover significant amounts of spilled oil in frigid, turbulent waters. 

We must stand up for our Arctic and our climate

More people than ever care about climate change, but Trump’s anticipated order to throw open the doors to Arctic Ocean leasing and ramp up the fossil fuel production would drive up greenhouse gas emissions and hasten the impacts of climate change. Reopening up the Arctic Ocean to potential drilling activity is ill-fated.

We cannot stand silently by—speak up for the Arctic and all of our incredible wild landscapes at the People’s Climate March on April 29.


Reporter's memo: Trump expected to open the Arctic Ocean to drilling