America’s Arctic is a place like no other. Its unique conditions — extreme weather, long periods of darkness, and its remoteness from infrastructure, make it both extremely harsh and fragile. Here, sea ice meets the northern edge of the continent, and animals congregate in great numbers.
I have been fortunate to spend time in Arctic Alaska. I’ve watched walrus gather on ice floes, puffins “fly” through the water, bowheads breach in ice-filled waters, and polar bears prowl the ice edge. I have traveled with Alaska Native people, who have lived on these lands and waters for hundreds of generations and seen the importance of these animals to their culture and subsistence.
A major spill could leave oil in these waters for decades, killing wildlife and bringing to an end Alaska Natives’ ancient way of life.
The Arctic is already paying the price for our fossil fuel habit. Northern Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the lower 48. The people of the North Slope see the impacts every day — in loss of sea ice, changes in animal abundance and behavior, and the loss of important subsistence opportunities.
The Obama administration is deciding whether to offer up new oil and gas leasing in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, and Shell Oil recently announced that it wants to try once again to drill in the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration must refuse Shell’s new, but not improved, exploration plan and decline to offer any new lease sales in the Arctic Ocean.
Drilling in the Arctic Ocean comes with a distinctive set of risks to the environment — and challenging risks to the would-be drillers, as Shell found out in 2012. Shell’s last attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea showed clearly just how unprepared and ill-equipped oil companies are to drill in the Arctic.
History has shown that where there’s drilling, there’s spilling. Oil spills in the Arctic would cause irreparable damage and be impossible to clean up.
Next year will mark 25 years since the Exxon-Valdez ran aground. Some of the oil that gushed everywhere can still be found on south central Alaskan beaches.
But the risks extend beyond a devastating oil spill. The Arctic acts as a refrigerator for the northern hemisphere. Tapping into and burning oil from the Arctic Ocean will pump dangerous amounts of carbon pollution into the air, worsening climate change. It will also coat Arctic ice surfaces with black, heat-absorbing soot, further speeding the melting of sea ice; there is already roughly 50 percent less ice than there was two decades ago.
The effects of melting Arctic ice can be seen in rising sea levels in coastal areas from New Orleans to Miami and in a sharp global increase in extreme weather events.
The Obama administration identified addressing climate change as its number one environmental priority. While it has made progress with demand side measures such as vehicle fuel economy and power plant carbon pollution standards, this progress can be negated by Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan that opens up our public lands and waters to dirty fuel production.
To effectively address climate change, the United States must lead an effort to begin keeping fossil fuels in the ground, especially in risky, remote, and fragile places like the Arctic Ocean.
If the White House is serious about curtailing climate change, halting leasing and drilling in the Arctic Ocean is the place to start. Cleaner energy and transportation options are here now. We don’t need to continue investing in fuels of the past.