The Obama administration has given conditional approval to Shell to start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic this summer, dealing a major blow to environmentalists who have sought to protect the vulnerable Beaufort and Chuchki Seas from fossil fuel exploration.
"Arctic drilling is climate denial, plain and simple," Jamie Henn, co-founder of climate activist organization 350.org, tweeted after the announcement. "Shameful decision by [President Barack Obama] to allow Shell to drill."
Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement on Monday, "As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards."
"Arctic drilling is a step in the exact wrong direction. Scientists tell us that if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to keep Arctic oil in the ground. Arctic drilling gives us a 75 percent chance of an oil spill and a 100 percent chance of climate catastrophe. Interior should send Shell packing."
—Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity
However, environmental activists have long warned that there is no way to fully protect against the dangers of offshore drilling, particularly in areas that are hard to reach by emergency vessels. Not only does fossil fuel exploration harm endangered species which rely on the Arctic's pristine ecosystems to survive, but an accident in those remote waters could be more devastating than the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill which killed 11 workers and poured millions of barrels of oil into the Atlantic Ocean, activists say.
Furthermore, green groups point out that the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to leave untapped reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas unexploited.
Calling Shell's drilling scheme "the largest, loudest and dirtiest exploration plan ever proposed in the American Arctic Ocean," Friends of the Earth said the Interior Department's approval "is unconscionable given that the latest science says Arctic oil must be kept in the ground in order to have a chance at keeping the planet safe."
The White House first granted drilling approval to Shell in the summer of 2012, but that project was derailed by numerous safety and operational problems. According to the New York Times, the Interior Department’s new approval (pdf) of the plan "was conditional on Shell’s receiving approval of a series of remaining drilling permits for the project."
That was of little comfort to environmental groups which say that the oil giant has not demonstrated it can drill safely in the ecologically delicate region.
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"Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth," Susan Murray, a vice president of Oceana, told the Times. "Shell's need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk. Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell's proposal."
Henn later tweeted, "Giving Shell 'conditional' permission to drill in the Arctic is like giving a drunk keys to your car and asking them to please drive safe."
"It's deeply troubling to see the Obama administration give the oil industry the green light to drill in the Arctic," Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on Monday. "Not only does it put the Arctic's pristine landscapes at a huge risk for oil spills and industrial development but it's utterly incompatible with President Obama's rhetoric to address the climate crisis."
The Interior Department bent over backward to rush Shell’s permit through the regulatory process so it could move its drillships into the Arctic this summer. Considering Shell ran its drillship aground in Alaska in 2012, it’s hard to fathom how the federal government can rationalize rubber-stamping Shell’s second try at Arctic drilling.
Arctic drilling is a step in the exact wrong direction. Scientists tell us that if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to keep Arctic oil in the ground. Arctic drilling gives us a 75 percent chance of an oil spill and a 100 percent chance of climate catastrophe. Interior should send Shell packing.
Erik Grafe, a staff attorney with environmental legal nonprofit Earthjustice, added, "This decision places big oil before people, putting the Arctic's iconic wildlife and the health of our planet on the line. The agency should not be approving such threatening plans based on a rushed and incomplete environmental and safety review. Ultimately, Arctic Ocean drilling is far too risky and undermines the administration's efforts to address climate change and transition to a clean energy future. These fossil fuels need to remain in the ground."