Obama and Oil

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Obama and Oil

'Why explore for more oil -- in the Arctic of all places -- when we can't burn most of the oil that's already been identified?' (Image: actionnetwork.org)

President Obama must wonder whether someone is trying to tell him something. On March 31, 2010, he announced an expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration, putting his faith in "new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration." Just 20 days later, the Deepwater Horizon blowout became the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Then, last month, with the ink scarcely dry on his administration's initial approval of Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic, more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil fouled the California coastline off Refugio State Beach, raising memories of the disastrous 1969 Santa Barbara spill that helped drive the first Earth Day a year later.

There's no good place for an oil spill, but the Santa Barbara Channel is an especially bad one. Before the Spanish came, the Chumash people had their own name for Refugio Beach: Qasil (which means "beautiful"). The surf is often mild and palm trees dot the beach. One friend tells me he remembers body surfing there in the late afternoon while dolphins hung silhouetted in the approaching waves. The nearby Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary teems with whales, dolphins, sea lions, some 60 species of seabirds, and more than 500 species of fish.

Horrible though the Refugio spill is, at least someone is attempting to clean it up. The Coast Guard was on the scene within hours. But the waters where Shell Oil plans to drill in the Arctic also teem with sea life like whales, seals, walruses, and polar bears. Yet the nearest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away.

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President Obama's own Department of the Interior has already predicted that, if Shell is allowed to proceed with drilling, the likelihood of a large spill is 75 percent. So who's going to clean it up -- and with what completely unproven technology? Even the American Petroleum Institute admits to "logistical challenges" for dealing with an Arctic oil spill. That's putting it mildly. The industry cites the region as having some of the most dangerous seas in the world. The Gulf of Mexico is practically a mill pond in comparison, yet as much as three-quarters of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was never recovered. Ten million gallons of toxic oil remain on the seafloor, and it could be decades before we know the full extent of the damage.

President Obama isn't connecting the dots when it comes to oil, and it's threatening his promise to leave office with a strong legacy on climate action and clean energy. Scientists have warned us that three-quarters of all fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we want to prevent runaway climate disruption. Why explore for more oil -- in the Arctic of all places -- when we can't burn most of the oil that's already been identified?

One of the first things you learn in Econ 101 is the importance of supply and demand. President Obama and his administration deserve credit for major accomplishments when it comes to decreasing demand for dirty fossil fuels, whether it's forcing utilities to clean up polluting power plants or establishing stronger fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks. Bizarrely, though, the president is simultaneously making decisions that could lock in vast quantities of dirty fuels on the supply side for decades to come. An expansion of drilling in the Arctic, which could hold up to 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas resources, is exactly such a decision.

The decisions and investments we make today have everything to do with what the future will look like for generations to come. Do we invest billions in increasingly extreme ways to extract the fossil fuels that threaten our climate, or do we invest in clean energy solutions and technologies that will help meet that threat? Do we invest in oil derricks in the Arctic or in safety for Amtrak? Gas-export terminals or energy-storage technologies? These are the decisions that will determine the future.

The good news is that the president and his administration still have time to rethink drilling policies, walk back bad decisions, and make better ones. Before Shell Oil can actually begin work in the Arctic, it must have its oil spill disaster response plan approved and its wastewater discharge permit issued, along with other permits. The authority to issue those permits lies solely with the administration. More administrative decisions on whether to expand Arctic drilling leases even further are also yet to be announced. And there are still important decisions for the president to make about the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines.

In the end, building a legacy is more than piling up a record of accomplishments -- it's the actions you take today that will reverberate far into the future -- for better or for worse. Let President Obama know that one of the most important actions he can take today is to deny any or all of the remaining permits Shell needs to move forward with its plan for drilling in the Arctic.

Michael Brune

Michael Brune is the executive director of The Sierra Club. His book Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal was published by Sierra Club Books in September 2008.

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