Over the past year, President Obama has advanced the U.S. to a position of international climate leadership, restoring hope for the climate talks which will take place in Paris later this year. 

The president has achieved this by making great strides toward reducing our nation’s carbon pollution. We are advancing strong fuel efficiency standards and setting limits on carbon pollution from our nation’s power plants. Together, these policies put us on track to lower emissions by roughly 27 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. 


But reductions in carbon emissions have to continue after 2030. And as a physicist and mathematician, I’m concerned that there are a few things about the Obama administration’s energy policies – particularly when it comes to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean – that needlessly threaten our goals for 2050, if not those for 2030 as well. 

In May, the Interior Department approved Shell Oil’s summer 2015 Arctic Ocean plan. This set the stage for the oil giant’s sprawling flotilla of vessels and oil rigs to cast off from their docks on the Puget Sound and elsewhere, motor north and in a few weeks’ time begin drilling for oil in our nation’s last pristine ocean, where the Department of the Interior estimates there’s a 75-percent chance of one or more large spills in the Chukchi Sea leasing area alone. 

The risk of a serious oil spill in these pristine, frigid waters is grounds enough for concern.  But the threat to our climate is equally grave. 

Development of Arctic wells would threaten our goal of an 80-percent reduction in emissions by 2050 and also threaten our efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – a benchmark confirmed earlier this month by G7 countries. 

Opening up vast areas of the Arctic Ocean for oil drilling risks undermining these gains because after initial development of wells, Arctic Ocean oil production could continue for many decades—triggering carbon pollution the science dictates we cannot sustain if we are serious about our obligation to protect our planet for future generations. 

What makes any decision to drill in the Arctic doubly confounding is that we don’t need this oil now and we won’t need it in the future. Demand for gasoline—the primary product produced from oil—in the U.S. is declining. As vehicle fuel efficiency improves – we’re moving toward a fleet average of 54.5 miles-per-gallon by 2025 – and as the energy to power our cars moves from gasoline and diesel toward electricity, we’re just not burning as much oil as we used to. 

Since oil companies know additional supply is not needed for domestic consumption, they’re not counting on selling to the U.S. market. Instead, they hope to export that oil – which will require Congress to lift the crude oil export ban. And if we keep selling it, others will keep burning it, dumping harmful carbon pollution in our atmosphere, while suppressing the clean solutions we know are on the way—if we give them the chance to breathe. 

After spending my adult life working in science and technology, I know one thing you can count on is that the technology we have today will look quaint compared to the technology we’ll have decades from now. That means transportation systems will evolve toward lower carbon intensity much faster than we think. 

The problem is that if in the meantime we open vast new carbon reserves like the Arctic and start burning that oil, we risk pushing our atmosphere past the tipping point before the new technologies and smart global policies have a chance to fully take root.

That’s why we must take Arctic waters completely off the table to oil and gas drilling. The U.S. does not need this oil and if we allow it to be burned, we risk dangerous climate disruption while suppressing the global adoption of the clean solutions we must put in place if we have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. 

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Bernhardt retired as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2005. He is a North California chapter director at the national nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2).