MEMO: Trump Expected to Open Arctic Ocean to Drilling Friday

Apr 27, 2017

Waves batter Shell's Kulluk drill rig after it ran aground near Kodiak, Alaska, on New Year's Even, 2012.


TO: Energy and public lands reporters

FROM: Tim Woody, Alaska Communications Manager, The Wilderness Society,, 907-223-2443

According to press reports, President Trump this Friday is expected to sign an executive order to open protected offshore waters to oil drilling, possibly including the Arctic Ocean, which President Obama withdrew from federal oil and gas leasing under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The order may also be an initial step toward that goal by ordering a “review” as the President did on national monuments earlier this week.

Trump’s order also is likely to direct the U.S. Department of the Interior to revise Obama’s 2017-2022 offshore leasing plan, which excluded Arctic Ocean lease sales. Additionally, the order may threaten important Arctic-specific exploratory drilling standards and existing rules for preventing well blowouts such as the one that caused 2010’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy, which caused 11 deaths and spilled nearly 200 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is unclear how Trump might address Obama’s permanent withdrawal of more than 125 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from future oil and gas leasing under Section 12(a) of OCSLA. The act authorizes presidents to withdraw areas from leasing, but does not explicitly give them the power to undo withdrawals by their predecessors.

UNDOING OBAMA PROTECTIONS. The Obama administration’s actions were bold, visionary steps to prevent oil drilling in one of the riskiest and most costly drilling environments in the world while at the same time helping ensure that the United States meets its Paris/COP21 commitments to slow the rate of climate change.

“President Trump’s order could put the Arctic Ocean—and Alaska’s sensitive northern coast—at risk of a major oil spill,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

“The Obama administration learned from Shell’s disastrous record in Alaska, and realized that industry is incapable of safely mobilizing and drilling in such an extreme and sensitive environment,” Epstein said. “President Obama recognized that the Arctic Ocean is important for more than just oil and gas.”

As you prepare to report on this week’s expected executive order from the Trump administration, we offer this reminder that the Obama administration’s efforts to protect the Arctic Ocean were a victory for the environment, the climate, and Alaska coastal communities.

EMPTY ENERGY SECURITY. The president will likely say his order is intended to boost energy security, but it’s a myth. Industry has given up nearly all of its Chukchi Sea leases and most of its Beaufort Sea leases (see this analysis), so there is little expectation by major oil companies that Arctic Ocean drilling is a wise investment in the near-term with relatively low oil prices expected for many years.

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas have no U.S. Coast Guard facilities and only minimal infrastructure to support a major oil spill response. Shell’s series of blunders during the 2012 and 2015 drilling seasons, including a grounding and a near-grounding of its drill rig and drill ship, respectively, show that the industry cannot safely mobilize for, and operate in, Arctic waters.

The industry does not have the technology to recover significant amounts of spilled oil from cold, stormy seas. Typically, responders recover less than 10 percent of oil spilled in temperate waters. Recovery is more difficult in icy conditions, and oil breaks down more slowly in cold conditions, increasing environmental damage.

A major oil spill could devastate the marine environment and sensitive coastal areas that Alaska Natives use for subsistence, including the coasts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the wildlife-rich National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

A supplemental environmental impact statement for Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea estimated that there is a 75-percent chance of one or more major spills over the lifetime of oil operations in that leasing region, which is unacceptable.

Recognizing the important ecological and subsistence-use values of the region, in 2015 President Obama permanently withdrew 9.8 million acres under OCSLA from oil and gas leasing in the waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. 

While that action was significant to protect important ecological and subsistence areas, President Obama in 2016 took Arctic Ocean protections to a higher level by permanently withdrawing nearly all federal Arctic Ocean waters from future oil and gas leasing, except for 2.8 million acres in the Beaufort Sea that are near existing and proposed offshore oil infrastructure.

To ensure that marine and coastal values are protected, particularly in a changing climate, President Obama acted appropriately by protecting nearly all federal waters in the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas leasing.

Some places are simply too special to drill and the Arctic Ocean is one of them. President Trump’s efforts to re-open the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling are wrong for our environment, wrong for our climate and wrong for America.