The Arctic Needs Real Protection, Not Paperwork

by Phil Radford

March 14, 2013

The semi-submersible transport ship Xiang Yunkou with the Shell drilling rig Noble Discoverer loaded on board in Seward.

© Carol Griswold / Greenpeace

Despite the potentially devastating environmental risks, Shells Arctic Drilling program has had President Obamas blessing since the President took office. The President has given Shell major leeway to bend EPA rules, forgo spill response requirements, and wink at general maritime protocol in order to drill for, at best, enough oil to last a year.

Arctic exploration is clearly a major part of President Obamas misguided all-of-the-above (or all of the fossil fuels below) energy strategy, and yet, despite this executive endorsement, Shells incompetence in Alaska has exceeded everyones expectations and forced even the most vocal cheerleaders for profiteering to wonder if drilling for oil in the Arctic actually makes sense.

It doesnt.

Shells repeated problems have forced President Obama to prove he is paying attention, and so after the company lost control of its 28,000 ton drill rig over New Years, the Department of Interior began a high level review of the oil companys Arctic blooper reel with what seemed like an audible sigh. Everyone concerned with the safety and preservation of our natural wild places cheered the idea of the review, in no small part because it provided a president whose conservation track record is, as of now, worse than George W. Bush’s the opportunity to pivot to create a better legacy.

The results came in today and while the review did concede that Shell screwed up in 2012, it categorically failed to put in place anything that will stop Shell or other oil companies such as Conoco Phillips and Statoil from causing disasters in Alaska. Just like BP, Shell is getting away with blaming its contractors for their troubles. Since Shell already canceled their plans in 2013, this means that the Obama Administration isnt willing to exert its authority over corporate energy companies who want to exploit public lands. This review signals that Obama sees Shells disastrous attempt to drill–which has put people and ecosystems at serious risk–as a kind of adolescent romp that the company is sure to grow out of.

Luckily for Obamas climate legacy, this isnt his final test–the review did establish some oversight that could trigger a halt going forward if it is meaningfully enforced (big IF!)–but time is running out on Americas energy future, and the President needs to show real leadership now. The results of this review, tepid as they are, clearly show that this administration must find a way to protect the Arctic from bumbling oil companies.

If he–or Sally Jewell or John Kerry–dont decide to take on the true responsibilities of their respective offices, oil, gas, and coal companies will settle into four full years of being the de facto lords of our public lands and coastlines. This means Shell gets to decide when it does or doesnt drill the Arctic, King Coal gets to decide when it does or doesnt blow the tops of Kentucky mountains, and Exxon gets to decide when it does or doesnt light your faucet on fire with natural gas.

Letting corporate energy take charge of our natural resources in this way is like appointing Jose Canseco to safeguard baseball from steroids, or Kim Jong Un to lead the US Navy.

This corporate energy takeover is a major environmental risk for local communities in places like Alaska, but its also a terrible bet for the whole of Americas future. Obama can change course on his energy priorities, but the hour is getting late. Study after study shows we have the technology and the capability to get ahead with renewables now, but our leaders clearly aren’t ready to show the necessary backbone to make it happen. Clearly, they need us–their constituents and the people around the world affected by the destruction of the Arctic–to say it plain: No amount of paperwork will make Arctic drilling safe, and no amount of rhetoric will turn it into a good idea.

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