Just In: Obama Says No New Drilling in the Arctic, Leaves the Gulf of Mexico Vulnerable

by Tim Donaghy

November 21, 2016

The plan that will guide oil drilling in U.S. waters for the next five years includes milestone protections for the Arctic, but leaves the Gulf of Mexico open to exploitation.

Shell Protest during President Obama’s Visit to Alaska

Late last week, the Obama administration elected to protect the Arctic Ocean from offshore oil drilling while expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, counter to the demands of the growing Gulf South climate justice movement.

As Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard wrote in response, “We join Alaskan communities in praising this decision. And Greenpeace stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Gulf South, who have for too long seen their lands, homes, waters, and health sacrificed to the oil and gas industry.”

President Obama’s decision removed proposed lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from the 2017-2022 Five Year Program, which is the federal government’s work plan for leasing our nation’s offshore waters to companies looking to drill for oil and gas. While the U.S. Arctic was taken out, the plan still includes ten lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

Thankfully the president still has an opportunity cement his climate legacy by ending fossil fuel auctions on public lands and waters for good. With President-elect Donald Trump dead set on dismantling the Paris Climate Agreement and appointing a climate denier as head of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team, President Obama needs to do everything in his power to secure a safe climate for future generations in the time he has remaining.

Grassroots Momentum Against Fossil Fuels Is Growing

The Gulf has suffered from oil pollution for far too long, and the events of the past year speak to a disturbing pattern.

In May, 90,000 gallons spilled from Shell’s Brutus platform. In August, Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish was hit with three significant spills in just a few weeks. In September, a PEMEX oil tanker caught fire. And there’s the Taylor Energy site, which has been steadily leaking oil into the Gulf for 12 years with no end in sight. All this in a region still reeling from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — the largest industrial disaster in U.S. history.

In the face of all this, Gulf communities are coming together to demand no new leases and a just transition away from fossil fuels. In March, hundreds rallied at the Superdome and occupied an oil and gas lease sale to state that they will no longer be a sacrifice zone for the nation’s oil and gas industry. Then in August, hundreds more mobilized across Louisiana during the “Another Gulf Is Possible” week of action.

Activists know President Obama is listening. Earlier this year, he removed the Atlantic coast from the drilling program in response to a groundswell of opposition from coastal residents in the Southeast. This week it’s the Arctic. In the last 60 days of his administration, we need to use this momentum to make sure President Obama ends all new fossil fuel auctions on public lands and waters.

What This Means for the Climate

Fighting new fossil fuel extraction projects — like offshore oil drilling — and keeping that carbon in the ground will be crucial to meeting the climate goals agreed to in Paris. The carbon emissions associated with oil, gas, and coal projects already under development are enough to push us over the 2 degree limit, meaning we can’t afford to invest in risky, long-term extraction projects like Arctic drilling.

In fact, a report by Greenpeace and Oil Change International found that removing Arctic drilling from the Five Year Program could reduce global emissions by 440 million tons of carbon dioxide over the lifespan of the leases. But by leaving the Gulf in the plan, Obama’s decision could lead to hundreds of million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that didn’t have to happen.

A Trump Presidency Looms

Trump has pledged to remove all barriers to fossil fuel development on federal lands, and he has several options at his disposal to undo Obama’s protections and expand offshore oil drilling once he takes office. It is rumored that oil executives are in line to lead his Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency in charge of offshore leasing.

But there is little Trump can do to make offshore Arctic oil drilling an attractive or viable prospect for Alaska. With oil prices remaining low, Arctic oil drilling remains extremely risky, expensive, and unlikely to yield results in the next decade.

And regardless of what move Trump makes, activists like you are not going to sit by and let him tear apart U.S. waters for fossil fuel profit. From day one, we’ll be ready to fight back against any policy that puts our climate and our communities at stake — and we’re counting on you to be there with us.

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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