President Obama Should Prioritize Protecting the Arctic as Part of His Climate Legacy

All signs point to the fact that President Obama should prioritize protecting the Arctic as part of his climate legacy.
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Category:Arctic sea ice. GFDL | cc-by-sa-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0
Category:Arctic sea ice. GFDL | cc-by-sa-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

Shell Oil Company's Arctic drilling program once again came under national scrutiny when its drill rig, the Kulluk, ran aground off of Alaska's Kodiak Island. The nation watched as Shell failed in its effort to move its rig from Arctic waters to Seattle. The grounding set off a firestorm of questions about the safety and sanity of drilling in the Arctic Ocean, generally, and about Shell's drilling operations, specifically, including criticisms from the business community.

The grounding of the Kulluk was the capstone to Shell's mishaps and foibles in 2012 -- which included losing control of its other drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, which slipped an anchor in Dutch Harbor, Alaska this summer; failing to meet Clean Air Act standards; having its oil spill containment dome "crushed like a beer can" during testing in the relatively calm waters in Washington state; abandoning its drilling site in less than 24 hours when an ice sheet larger than the combined five boroughs of New York City barreled down on its location; and, at the end of the drilling season, getting the Kulluk stuck for nearly a week by frigid temperatures and ice trying to leave the Arctic. Just recently, we have learned that the Noble Discoverer is now unable to operate under its own power. Yet Shell is hoping to tow it across the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Alaska to Seattle (déjà vu, anyone?).

Shell's failed 2012 drilling program, culminating in the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer challenges, was not just symptomatic of Shell's larger operations problems, however. These events tell a much bigger story about the harsh and unpredictable conditions of the Arctic. Shell's failures shine a spotlight on the realities of proposed Arctic development -- with a documented lack of infrastructure and support, the inability to clean up an oil spill in ice and overwhelming weather conditions. Shell's story has caused many to question whether any oil company can safely drill in the Arctic Ocean.

But, drilling isn't the only danger to the future of the Arctic. This week President Obama acknowledged the threats of climate change in his inauguration address, saying that the lack of response to the issue would "betray our children and future generations." However, the administration has not made the connection between protecting the Arctic and solving the climate crisis. Quite simply, the administration can't have its cake (the "all of the above energy" approach) and leave a climate change legacy too while drilling in the Arctic.

According to a report by Greenpeace, Big Oil's projects, including Shell's Arctic drilling program, "could push climate to a point of no return." And, just recently the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee comprised of 13 federal agencies under the administration, has released a report that mentions some concerning impacts to the environment and our special and fragile ecosystems, like the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic.

The Obama Administration has some time to conduct an assessment of Shell's operations and the opportunity to discount the feasibility of drilling in the Arctic. Just last week, the Obama administration launched a 60-day "expedited, high-level assessment" of the 2012 offshore drilling program which will also evaluate Shell Oil Company's management, operations and performance in the Arctic. We feel that any objective analysis would conclude that neither Shell nor any other oil company is ready to drill in the Arctic now.

All signs point to the fact that President Obama should prioritize protecting the Arctic as part of his climate legacy.

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