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Now is Not the Time to Drill in the Arctic

Nithin Coca headshotWords by Nithin Coca
Energy & Environment
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We're at a critical moment. Clean, renewable energy is growing faster than ever before. Here in California, solar panels are sprouting up in neighborhoods all across the state. More and more companies are shifting to 100 percent renewable energy. Just last week, we learned about Tesla's new home-battery packs, meant to store solar energy. They are now sold out until mid 2016.

Yesterday's headline, however, read like something from another era. President Barack Obama's administration, a supporter of the clean-energy economy, gave conditional approval for Shell to drill for oil in Chukchi Sea, off the Alaska coast in the Arctic Ocean.

Let that sink in for a second. The Arctic Ocean is the world's most undeveloped, natural ocean. It is home to polar bears, numerous migratory birds and an incredibly fragile ecosystem. For most of the year, it is covered in ice and impossible to drill.

“The Arctic is one of the most beautiful places on Earth — and one of the most forbidding and vulnerable. What would happen if a major spill occurred?" asked Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program, in a public statement. "We haven’t ensured that important subsistence and ecological areas will be adequately protected, and don’t have the capacity to respond effectively. Until we do, the administration should not approve drilling in the Chukchi Sea.”

Dangerous and risky


Remember the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010? The largest marine oil spill in history pumped millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, devastating marine wildlife. The economy of the region is still suffering the consequences.

Compared to the Arctic, though, the gulf is a breeze. There's no ice; there are numerous seaports, an airport, and regular Coast Guard traffic and other shipping in the area. The Arctic, in comparison, is remote. There are no cities within thousands of miles, no major airports, no seaport, and no regular shipping or Coast Guard patrols. If a spill happens, imagine the logistical nightmare in trying to bring rescue equipment to such a remote area. And if it's winter ... forget about it.

This is no nightmare scenario. It is is all too real, because the government's own analysis found that, if drilling goes ahead as planned, the likelihood of a large spill is 75 percent, with small spills almost certain to happen. That is far too high of a risk for Shell, for the Arctic and for us as human beings.

Then, there is climate change. Last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made it clear that we need to cut back dramatically on fossil fuel usage. Yet, this plan will do the exact opposite, adding more oil to the global economy, driving prices down and limiting opportunities for clean, renewable energy.

In fact, it is only because of climate change warming the poles that it is now ice-free enough for drilling to even take place. It is a vicious cycle: Climate change -- due to the burning of fossil fuels extracted by companies like Shell -- warms the poles, which opens up more region to drilling, more extraction and ... well, I think you can see where this is going.

"Both science and common sense is crystal clear in telling us that undeveloped dirty fuels, especially those in the Arctic, must remain in the ground if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate disruption," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a public statement. "Downplaying the threats drilling poses to our climate, communities and environment -- as Shell continues to do -- does not in reality make the threats any less serious. The Obama administration must say no to drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean, cancel these leases, and remove future leasing from the five-year offshore drilling plan.

The fight isn't over


Activists are not taking this news lightly. In Seattle, where Shell's rigs are planning to dock and use as a staging ground for their exploratory activities, a grassroots movement has sprung up -- leading to the city's mayor to tell Shell they need a new permit to station in his city's port. Environmental organizations including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and numerous local groups in Alaska are planning to fight the administration's move.

Shell could learn from its peers. Last year, Chevron decided that the risk -- both to its investment and to the environment -- were too high, and halted its plans to drill in the Arctic. Let's hope that Shell, and the Obama administration, both come to their senses soon.

To learn more about the fight to save the Arctic, visit the Our Arctic Ocean coalition site.

Image credit: Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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