A Week of Madness: Shell, KXL and the Arctic Auction

The past week has been quite the roller coaster for folks who care about the fate of the Arctic. First, as Mike Brune, head of the Sierra Club wrote recently, President Obama stepped up and announced protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska: one of America's most impressive wildlife treasures. Paying no mind to this signal, notorious multinational Shell then confirmed that it intends to head to the Arctic in search of oil this summer. The very same Arctic that's melting thanks to our global addiction to fossil fuels. Not long after Shell's news, the Senate approved the Keystone XL pipeline. By this point my "Are you kidding me?" radar is going off loud and clear.

Public outcry started immediately after the Senate's Keystone vote, with compelling arguments flying around the Internet and protests greeting President Obama in Philadelphia the same day. We're going to need the same public outcry come March when the Obama administration will decide whether Shell gets to drill in the Arctic. In the meantime, I don't want Shell's reckless announcement to sneak in under the radar. Too much is at stake.

Let's be clear, Shell is the very same company that made a serious mess of its first attempts to get ahold of oil in the Alaskan Arctic, using the now infamous Kulluk drill rig. The rig couldn't handle the rough seas and gale force winds that occur relentlessly in that part of the world. The Kulluk ran aground and its crew underwent a harrowing evacuation by helicopter. One of the companies contracted by Shell to do its Arctic exploration, Noble Drilling, eventually pled guilty to eight felonies and was fined $12.2 million dollars for violating environmental and safety standards. On announcing its intention to head back to the Arctic this summer, Shell Chief Executive, Ben van Beurden, told the BBC "we are as well prepared as any company can be to mitigate the risks." This seems little more than "fingers crossed" given Shell's disastrous track record in the region.

I take the prospect of Shell heading to the Arctic personally. Not least because the company recently rushed through a deal with the city of Seattle, my hometown, to host its drilling fleet in our Port. Clearly it knew the kind of resistance Seattleites would put up to Shell's presence in our sustainable city, and decided to avoid the hassle by foregoing any meaningful public consultation.

The case for leaving Arctic oil in the ground is stronger than ever. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), responsible for managing development of America's offshore resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way, has already reported a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills if oil is pumped in U.S. Arctic waters. Those are terrifying odds for the people and wildlife that need the Arctic kept pristine to survive.

If the imminent threat of a major spill doesn't have you questioning Shell's logic, respected scientific journal Nature recently identified Arctic oil as the natural resource that must remain entirely unburned if we're to avoid catastrophic climate change. I cannot over-emphasize the need to freeze further exploration for all new fossil energy sources, since our atmosphere couldn't even handle it if we burn what's already been discovered.

And yet I continue to find myself on this roller coaster. Just two days after President Obama offered protection for the ANWR, which by definition must mean that exploration for onshore oil is now off limits there, he proceeded to propose opening up areas off the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts to oil and gas leasing. Some of these waters are right off the shore of the newly protected Wildlife Refuge. So an oil spill here would be the equivalent of declaring half your cup of coffee "protected", while pouring sour milk into the rest. The whole thing is ruined, though of course the Arctic is irreplaceable, unlike a $3 coffee.

The signal these "please protect, please drill" announcements send is at best confusing. The only thing that can stop Shell drilling in the Arctic now is for President Obama to cancel its lease. As with his decision on Keystone XL, the world is watching to see if the President means it when he says that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.

There is no need for President Obama, Seattle, or any of us to be complicit in Shell's risky endeavours. We need to be vocal in our dissent. The President needs to veto Shell's plans and take Arctic drilling off the table. I'm going to stick with this roller coaster until we're back on solid ground; safe in the knowledge that Arctic oil is staying exactly where it belongs.