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U.S. Arctic oil will be exposed to increasing risks associated with mounting public opposition, marked by creative direct actions like this flotilla, says the report from Oil Change International and Greenpeace. (Photo: Backbone Campaign/flickr/cc)

Can't Touch This: To Stave Off Climate Disaster, Arctic Oil Must Stay in Ground

'There is no reasonable scenario in which Arctic oil drilling and a safe climate future co-exist,' says Oil Change International in new report

Deirdre Fulton

Just days after Royal Dutch Shell commenced drilling at the bottom of the Chukchi Sea, two major environmental groups released a new report confirming what many activists and scientists have already warned—to avert the looming climate crisis, U.S. Arctic offshore oil should be considered "untouchable."

"There is no reasonable scenario in which Arctic oil drilling and a safe climate future co-exist," said report author Hannah McKinnon, senior campaigner with Oil Change International (OCI), which issued the study along with Greenpeace. "Drilling in the Arctic is a climate disaster, plain and simple."

"The President can't continue to leave the the fate of the Arctic—and his climate legacy—up to a disastrous corporation like Shell."
—Tim Donaghy, Greenpeace

Untouchable: The Climate Case Against Drilling (pdf) reiterates the warning that, according to the best available science, at least three-quarters of existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to limit global warming to 2° Celsius. "Projects that expand or break open new reserves and generate more greenhouse gas emissions clearly fail a test of what is safe for the global climate," the report states.

Shell Oil's mishap-plagued hunt for oil in the Arctic is a prime example of such a project, the authors charge, given that "the only scenarios published in defense of Arctic oil exploration are consistent with at least 5 degrees Celsius of global warming—a level widely considered to be disastrous."

Not only is Arctic drilling bad for frontline communities and the environment, it's expensive, with Shell depending on sustained high oil prices if it wants to make a profit, the report explains. And from an investor perspective, U.S. Arctic oil is an asset that has a high risk of becoming stranded as billions are poured into exploration for a resource that experts say ultimately cannot be burned safely.

Still, the report declares, the oil industry—and the government actors who have supported its bids for seemingly unlimited resource exploration and extraction—continue to employ "fossil fuel fatalism," perpetuating the idea that oil, gas, and coal will continue to dominate the energy supply for decades to come.

"To tackle climate change, one step must be to liberate our imaginations—and our policies—from the grip of this fatalism," the report states.

After all, "what happens in the Arctic matters to all of us," said Tim Donaghy, senior research specialist at Greenpeace. "America is living with the floods, storms and heatwaves caused by global warming, and this report makes absolutely clear that Arctic drilling will only make it worse."

Donaghy laid the fate of this vast and pristine region at the feet of President Barack Obama, whose decision to green light Shell's Arctic drilling plan earlier this summer was seen as a betrayal by climate activists.

"The message is clear: the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation."
—Hannah McKinnon, Oil Change International

"The President can’t continue to leave the the fate of the Arctic—and his climate legacy—up to a disastrous corporation like Shell," Donaghy said. "It's not too late to rescind the lease and make the Arctic permanently off-limits to catastrophic oil drilling."

The White House announced Thursday that later this month, Obama will become the first sitting president to visit the Alaskan Arctic. In a video released from the vacation home he's staying at in Martha's Vineyard, Obama said he's going to Alaska because it is on the "front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century."

"You see, climate change once seemed like a problem for future generations, but for most Americans, it’s already a reality," he said.

But for some, it's difficult to reconcile Obama's climate rhetoric with his industry-friendly actions.

"By allowing Shell to drill in the U.S. offshore Arctic Ocean, the Obama Administration is ignoring the world's best scientists, as well as millions of concerned citizens in North America and beyond," McKinnon wrote on Thursday. "The message is clear: the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation."

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