Franz Matzner: Arctic Drilling: Folly Wrapped in Rhetoric

Oct. 26, 2018 – Secretary Zinke this week—with great fanfare—approved a drilling operation in Arctic waters just off the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort sea.

This is, no doubt, a troubling development. The Arctic is no place for oil and gas drilling, and this site is not far from one of America’s last wild places—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The project Interior is greenlighting is a small area of the Arctic Ocean where President Obama had previously approved drilling.

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Still, let’s be clear about what Zinke is doing here.

Just two weeks after international experts sounded a five-alarm emergency on climate, the steward of America’s natural resources is approving the use of publicly-held waters for fossil fuel development. Every time you hear the phrase “energy dominance,” instead think, “polluter dominance.” In view of what is essentially a global climate crisis, it is hard to fathom that a rational Interior Secretary would hand this swath of ocean over to dirty energy companies and put our oceans, marine life and climate at risk.

Here are some reasons why this is a terrible idea:

  • This is a major operation likely to disturb the environment. Located six miles from the Alaskan coast, it will require construction of a 9 acre gravel island to sync up with drilling operations on nearby state lands.
  • Wherever we drill, we spill. We know these industrial operations are dangerous anywhere. Authorizing new offshore operations the same week as we’re reminded that one of the largest oil spills in history has been leaking for 14 years reinforces Zinke’s total disregard for facts on the ground. A reasonable reaction to the Taylor disaster would be to press pause on expanded offshore drilling, not barrel ahead and put ocean health and communities in harm’s way to serve private corporations. It is especially egregious when you consider that the company pursuing this project—Hilcorp Energy—has a track record of leaks and spills, in Alaska and other regions.
  • This is no time to hand polluters the keys to our natural resources. Everything we know about climate science and the growth of clean energy belies any claim that expanded offshore drilling is anything but a dangerous handout to corporate entities.  The latest analysis by the world’s most esteemed body of climate scientists has warned dramatic action must be taken to shift to clean energy, not double down on more carbon pollution. The IPCC report specifically cautioned against “locking in high carbon infrastructure.” Previous analysis has shown carbon “lock-in” is a serious threat to climate stability, and that offshore operations are particularly risky. The risk of ignoring this mandate is already playing out across the nation in the form of severe hurricanes, sea level rise, and more.
  • Zinke and his oil industry backers have yet more damaging long term goals in mindsinking drill rigs throughout the publicly owned Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.
  • As NRDC has noted here and here, drilling any further afield in the Arctic Ocean would be even more perilous than drilling in shallower waters and other environments. Keep in mind that the proposed Liberty project will be surrounded by land, and in waters 20 feet deep. The risks inherent to drilling only get worse when sinking drill rigs far from shore in tumultuous waters that are far deeper.  The technology to do this in a way that’s safe for people and the environment just aren’t there. And there are no good precedents for Arctic drilling. Just two years ago, Shell failed in its attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea 80 miles from shore. That would have required a massive investment in pipelines, drill rigs, and attendant infrastructure. (Note that in the seven years that followed the Deepwater Horizon BP blowout, the offshore oil industry experienced at least 4,105 explosions, fires, collisions, spills and other incidents that resulted in 1,568 injuries and 13 deaths. According to the agency charged with monitoring spills, there were at least 34 oil spills of more than 2,000 gallons each, and countless lesser spills that were never reported.)
  • Expanding drilling further afield would also blatantly ignore that those waters are permanently protected and float legal precedent.
  • The public is opposed to expanded offshore drilling, and supports Arctic Ocean permanent protections from drilling.

Once again, Zinke is selling the public a pig-in-a-poke. Expanded offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean—if it ever occurs—has nothing to do with national security and sound economics. It has everything to do with corporate profits, cronyism, and willful ignorance of climate reality.

It’s time for Secretary Zinke to give up the ghost and listen to science and public opinion. Arctic drilling is as dangerous as it is unnecessary. The Trump administration should reverse course, reject the Liberty Project, and toss its forthcoming five-year offshore drilling plan in the trash.

That would be a start at giving people what they truly want: clean energy and a safer future.

Franz Matzner is NRDC’s Director of Federal Affairs, Center for Policy Advocacy.  www.nrdc.org