Climate change and drilling

A number of recent happenings are strengthening the case against developing dirty fuels, especially in the Arctic Ocean.  What is emerging is a clear picture of the impacts of climate change in the Arctic and the risks posed by future drilling in the area.  The time for action is now.

The first piece of the picture surfaced on March 24 with little fan-fare and went unnoticed except by polar bears, specialized scientists, and total Arctic nerds -- the Arctic sea ice hit its annual maximum extent and began melting – where it will stop nobody knows. This year was the 5th smallest maximum recorded extent, another low in the recent string of record setting ice minimums. Taken together with the shrinking thickness of the ice, the story is even more alarming. More than half of the Arctic sea ice has vanished over the past 30 years. 

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As the sea ice melt began, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report examining the impacts climate change has on our current and future environment and what we must do to prepare. The report found that climate disruption is already occurring on every continent and in every ocean, and it disproportionately affects some communities. It also found that while preparing for the disruption can reduce the impacts of climate change, "greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits."  Our leading scientists are telling us that we must act now to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption.

This is especially important in the Arctic, which is already warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country.  Yet instead of taking steps to curb climate pollution, oil companies are pushing forward with new plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean. A new report released from the Sierra Club uses available U.S. government data to calculate the amount of carbon pollution that could be released if the dirty fuels in the Arctic Ocean were developed; the number is sobering.  Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would result in two-and-a-half times more carbon pollution than would be saved by our country's new fuel economy standards.  

But it doesn't stop there. The pollution from oil-drilling activities and oil-burning would coat Arctic ice surfaces with black, heat-absorbing soot, further speeding the melting of ice. Since the Arctic acts as a refrigerator for the Northern Hemisphere, the chain of reactions would continue with further changes like those outlined in the IPCC report.

Finally, just last week the U.S. Coast Guard released a scathing report on Shell Oil’s disastrous attempts to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012. The report found that despite warnings, Shell made ill-advised decisions to move its Kulluk drill ship in order to avoid paying taxes. As a result the Kulluk grounded near Kodiak Island. The grounding came at the end of a summer filled with Shell’s inability to meet permit requirements, accidents and pollution fines.  The report reaffirms that climate concerns aside, oil companies cannot be trusted to drill safely in the Arctic Ocean.

Connecting these dots, the need to take action to protect the Arctic, and consequently the climate, is paramount. It is plain to see that climate disruption is affecting the Arctic in ways we could not predict, and adding irresponsible companies and risky industrialization will tip it over the edge.  Now we must do something to protect these waters, wildlife, and communities.

The Arctic Ocean, where the sea ice meets the northern edge of the continent, is home to polar bears, millions of migratory birds, beluga whales, endangered bowhead whales, hundreds of thousands of caribou, and more. It has supported traditional Alaska Native subsistence lifestyles for centuries and continues to inspire wonder in people across the country. 

The Arctic is the last place we should be drilling for oil. We have seen Shell Oil fail in 2012, we have heard the challenges and effects of climate disruption, and now we must do something to fight climate change, protect Arctic wildlife, and move our country beyond fossil fuels.

The Obama administration has the opportunity right now to begin taking the lead in keeping dirty fuels in the ground in the Arctic. The Interior Department is currently starting the process of reconsidering Shell's leases in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.  The administration should look at the full picture as it considers the existing leases, and looking to the future it should place a moratorium on Arctic Ocean leasing.  An effective climate strategy requires that the administration take action in the Arctic. 

Cleaner energy and transportation options are here now. It's time to stop undermining them with the continued development of dirty fuels.  

Ritzman is Alaska Program Director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign.