Obama administration to decide fate of Arctic Ocean oil leasing soon

An oil spill in Arctic waters could devastate polar bear populations already struggling to adapt to climate change. 

Hugh Rose

We’re running out of time to persuade the Obama administration to remove the Arctic Ocean from the off-shore leasing program.

The Obama administration will soon finalize its five-year program for offshore oil and gas leasing on the U.S. outer continental shelf.

The draft of the program for 2017-2022 came out last March and included new oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The administration, however, removed the Atlantic Ocean from the program in response to public outcry from communities on the East Coast and concerns over interference with military operations.

The removal of the Atlantic was a positive step, but it is vital that the administration also remove the Arctic Ocean before finalizing the leasing program.

“The Arctic Ocean is an incredibly challenging operating environment, and it would be an enormous mistake to allow companies to drill there,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society. “Shell’s experience has shown the many problems drilling in—and getting its equipment to and from—the Arctic Ocean. Depending on the location and conditions in place at the time of a major oil spill, the sensitive coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could be greatly harmed.”

Map: The 5-year drilling plan would open the way for leasing in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas where fragile Arctic ecosystems could be irreparably harmed. 

Accidents happen

As Shell proved during its ill-fated 2012 and 2015 drilling seasons, the industry is incapable of safely operating in such a remote and challenging environment. We’re urging Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to protect the Arctic Ocean, and we hope you will spend a few moments to help.

Offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean would pose a direct threat to the sensitive coastlines of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Western Arctic Reserve, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. If a worst-case spill occurred, these fragile places could suffer massive harm and could take generations to recover.

The Department of the Interior projected that there was a 75 percent chance of at least one major oil spill 

The Department of the Interior projected that there was a 75 percent chance of at least one major oil spill resulting from potential oil development following its 2008 Arctic Ocean lease sale. With all but one of those leases relinquished by the oil industry, let’s not reinstate that same risk with new Arctic Ocean lease sales.Alaska’s northern coast has no infrastructure to support a major oil spill response. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard base is approximately 800 miles away. And the Arctic Ocean’s remote, stormy, icy seas are extremely hazardous, making drilling there a prescription for disaster. Even if the infrastructure were in place, the industry doesn’t have the technology to recover significant amounts of spilled oil from cold, rough seas.

Ice-packed seas present enormous challenges for cleaning up spilled oil. Image by NOAA, flickr.

Potential damage to the climate is indisputable. Producing and burning Arctic Ocean oil would release massive quantities of greenhouse gases, further warming our atmosphere.

It would simply be irresponsible to allow offshore drilling in this stormy — yet fragile — marine environment where a major oil spill could kill polar bears, walruses and seals, and cause wide-scale damage to populations of seabirds and aquatic life.

Let's continue to protect the Arctic Ocean as we head into the next administration. Help us with a donation to support this fight