Arctic Still Threatened by Oil Drilling, Atlantic Coast Spared

by Tim Donaghy

March 16, 2016

President Obama reversed course on a plan to allow oil drilling off the Atlantic coast — but laid plans for new drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell's Polar Pioneer in Seattle

Shell's Polar Pioneer drill rig is framed by an American flag as it sits at Terminal 5 in Seattle last May.

© Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

Yesterday, the Department of the Interior reversed course on a plan to allow oil drilling off the Atlantic coast — but laid plans for new drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. The removal of the Atlantic from consideration is a huge victory for coastal communities from Virginia to Georgia, who stood firm against big oil companies eager to drill off their shores.

But it wasn’t all good news.

Expanding oil leasing in the Arctic and the Gulf is flatly incompatible with the strong climate commitments that President Obama made in Paris last year, and with the joint pledge to fight climate change that he made with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just last week. But the game isn’t over yet.

This plan is now open for public comment, and as Atlantic coast communities have shown, activism gets results. The administration will release a final version later this year, so there is still a chance for President Obama to show true climate leadership by keeping federally-owned fossil fuels in the ground.

The Five-Year Plan That Could Last a Century

The draft Five-Year Program released yesterday will, when finalized, govern oil and gas leasing in federal offshore areas from 2017 to 2022.

As currently proposed, the program would expand oil leasing in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, even as it protects the Atlantic coast from future drilling. Because oil companies must constantly be searching for new oil reserves, companies like Exxon, Shell, and BP are already sizing up these new drilling opportunities.


Oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Here’s how it would work.

Should the 13 lease sales currently scheduled in the proposal go forward, oil companies will bid on offshore parcels and conduct exploratory drilling on the most promising ones. If oil or gas is discovered, the companies will begin to construct permanent infrastructure — drilling platforms, pipelines, refineries — to bring those fossil fuels to market. All this infrastructure comes at a steep cost, one that companies will want to make back by selling oil for decades to come.

This means that if President Obama allows these lease sales to go forward, he risks “locking in” investments that will make it harder for us to transition away from oil towards clean energy.

We already know that we need to leave about one-third of the world’s known oil reserves in the ground in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. In Paris, world leaders pledged to work toward an even more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees, which would allow for even less oil extraction.

We already have more oil than we can safely burn. Searching for new oil reserves is a counter-productive move that would undermine President Obama’s commitments on climate change.

What’s more, the impacts of this policy will live on well after his administration ends. While this Five-Year Plan ends in 2022, any leases sold could lead to decades of oil extraction, and the carbon released by burning that oil will stay in the atmosphere for up to a century. With this decision, the president risks locking us into fossil fuel infrastructure that will compromise climate action for decades.

Act on Climate, Save the Arctic

Just last week, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau released a wide-ranging statement pledging joint action to protect the Arctic and address climate change. In doing so, they committed to imposing a “climate test” on oil and gas development in the Arctic, and only authorizing such activities that are consistent with “national and global climate and environmental goals.”

Floating Ice in the Arctic Ocean

Floating Ice in the Arctic Ocean.

The Interior Department reiterated that pledge yesterday when it released the proposed program. Applying a “climate test” to decisions about offshore oil extraction is a significant step for President Obama. Taken together with his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and his recent moratorium on new coal leases, this is further evidence that the president is gradually aligning U.S. energy policy with his climate pledges.

Despite all of this, the U.S. Arctic Ocean is still included in the proposed program.

By any rational assessment, no Arctic oil projects could ever pass such a climate test. A recent study found that 100 percent of Arctic oil is “unburnable” in a world where we want to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Any oil found in the Arctic wouldn’t come on the market until the 2030s, by which time the transition to clean energy would be well under way. Given the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic, the short drilling season, the harsh offshore conditions, and the glut of existing oil reserves, any Arctic oil would only be consumed in a scenario where global temperature increase has soared to 3, 4 or 5 degrees Celsius — climate catastrophe.

A plan with Arctic oil drilling is a plan for climate disaster — and that’s even before considering the impossibility of cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.

There Is Still Time to Act

Although the president’s rhetoric is encouraging, there are already three lease sales are currently scheduled for Alaskan waters and ten for the Gulf of Mexico between now and 2022. It is a significant first step to apply a “climate test” to the U.S. and Canadian Arctic, but that test should also be applied in the Gulf of Mexico and to all federal fossil fuels.

More significantly, the clock is ticking on President Obama’s time in office and no one knows who our next president will be. Rather than leaving the door open on whether or not offshore oil and gas stays in the ground, President Obama must act now to end new oil and gas leasing in the Arctic and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tell President Obama today: no new offshore drilling!

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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