Assault On The Arctic: President Obama’s Mortal Sin

Approval of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling has tarnished his environmental legacy and sinned against our children.

By Bianca Jagger

The Huffington Post (9/15/15)

President Obama is the first incumbent US President to cross the Arctic Circle. The purpose of his expedition was to “witness first-hand the impact of climate change on the region” and to announce new measures to address it. Speaking at the Glacier climate summit in Anchorage, Obama recognised the role of the U.S. “in creating this problem.” He also stated “we embrace our responsibility to help solve it” because failure to do so will “condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.” Yet less than one month ago his administration gave the green light to Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic.

President Obama must know that it is impossible to protect the Arctic while allowing Shell to drill for oil 70 miles off the coast of Alaska. He cannot have it both ways. His policies and proclamations are irreconcilable.

During his three-day excursion to the Arctic Circle he climbed a receding glacier, saw the melting Alaskan permafrost, met vulnerable coastal communities and addressed the Glacier climate summit.

On the first day of his trip Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with Alaskan Natives. At the Glacier summit he urged fellow world leaders to reach an agreement at the UNFCCC Paris climate summit, COP21 in December that “protects the one planet … while we still can”.

On day two Obama hiked the Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. He knows the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the US and he is aware that theExit Glacier has receded more than a mile since the start of the industrial revolution, with the rate of melting accelerating in the last few decades. He called the glacier “as good of a signpost as any when it comes to the impacts of climate change” and said he wanted his grandchildren to be able to see it one day. If President Obama really means this, how can he justify his approval of Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic?

On the third day of his trip Obama met with local fishermen and families and attended a cultural performance by the children of Dillingham Middle School. The President joined the children in their last dance, saying: “I’ve been practising.” He visited Kotzebue’s sea wall to see the effects of rising sea levels and the devastating impact of increased storm severity. President Obama must know that even if the world agrees to keep temperature rises to 2 degree Celsius, sea levels, due to the melting of the ice, may still rise by 20 feet (6 metres) by 2100.

The Arctic
In his weekly address on 29th August Obama tried to defend his approval of Shell’s Arctic drilling. He said that Americans “are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters” and he had the audacity to say “that’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”

President Obama must know that no safeguards or standards will be enough to prevent an oil spill. According to a February 2015 report by his Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (Alaska OCS Region) drilling in the Arctic has a 75% chance of a spill of more than 1,000 barrels of oil.

How can President Obama trust Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic when during their last attempt in 2012 their Kulluk rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska, due to what the US Coast Guard called Shell’s “inadequate assessment and management of risks“. Arctic oil drilling is a dangerous and high-risk enterprise. Shell do not have an adequate extraction and spill response infrastructure. When they first attempted to drill in 2012, their response plan prepared for a worst-case oil spill of 25,000 barrels released per day for 30 days. In the same report Shell also made the ludicrous promise to recover 95% of a spill before oil reaches the shoreline despite the industry having recovery percentages of around only 10%, a figure which includes spills in more favourable clean up conditions than the Arctic. A freedom of information request revealed that both of Shell’s drilling rigs currently in the Arctic had operational failings. Basic fire drills and abandon ship drills were “botched”, indicating the crew and equipment were not prepared. The decision to drill for oil in the Arctic is reckless and irresponsible even for Shell’s shareholders. The company is only indemnified for $1.15bn per incident, which means that a spill could be followed by a huge asset sale to cover financial liabilities, similar to the one BP had in 2010. A senior official at a Canadian firm that specialises in oil-spill response admitted that “there is really no solution or method today that we’re aware of that can actually recover [spilled] oil from the Arctic.”

To approve Shell’s Arctic gamble President Obama should have assessed the oil industry’s record. He must be aware that the oil industry has proved unable to operate safely in the Arctic and that any spill could devastate the lives of the four million people who live there and the hundreds of unique species of fish, birds and mammals. According to the Center for Biodiversity all life is under threat in the Arctic, from plankton to great whales, including: reindeer, the Arctic fox, the Pacific Walrus, the gray, beluga and bowhead whales, the spectacled eider and ivory gulls.

Cleaning up after oil spills is always a difficult and traumatic task. The Arctic Ocean presents additional problems. The Ocean is covered by ice for eight to nine months of the year, with almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months. Booms and dispersants are less effective because petroleum sticks to ice and the cold temperatures mean there are no microbes present to break down leaked oil. According to WWF there is no ability to respond to a spill for 7-8 months a year and only a 44-46% ability to respond in favourable conditions. Additional spill support may come from the Coast Guard, but the nearest base is 950 miles away. According to Alexander Horne, Professor Emeritus of Ecological Engineering at Berkeley, an oil spill in the Arctic could have more long-term effects than BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster where 11 people died, 17 were injured, 16,000 miles of coastline were affected, and more than 210 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. Despite these overwhelming arguments, Ann Pickard head of Shell Arctic made the preposterous claim to be able to have a response in place, including a containment dome, capping stack, and surface booms, within 60 minutes of an accident.

The President must know that Shell’s Arctic oil drilling will cause increased greenhouse gas emissions and catastrophic climate change. As people throughout the world are pleading “the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation.

Al Gore described Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea as “insane” and called for a ban on all oil and gas activity in the Arctic. NGOs and environmental groups were quick to highlight Obama’s paradoxical environmental message, with Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity saying: “It’s perplexing and depressing to hear President Obama say he wants to fix climate change but then approve Arctic drilling. It’s like a doctor diagnosing a patient but then refusing to write a prescription”. Even Hilary Clinton, President Obama’s hopeful successorstated, “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.” Ahead of COP21 this sends a terrible signal to the world, that window dressing is all we can expect from the US President at this critical Climate Summit.

The Arctic is often referred to as the ‘canary in the coalmine‘ for climate change. It is our early-warning system. The canary is in bad shape. Arctic ice is melting at a record rate. This year’s seasonal minimum is set to be the third or fourth lowest on record, with the four lowest ice coverages occurring since 2007. As the ice retreats there are fewer reflective surfaces to reflect sunlight and the tundra and water that remain when the ice has melted absorbs more heat, causing further warming and making more ice disappear. …

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