With Shell pulling out, time to end Arctic drilling

Last week, Shell Oil announced that after years of largely self-inflicted setbacks and billions in lost investment, the oil giant’s Arctic drilling efforts came up dry and the company is putting an end to its Arctic Alaska adventure “for the foreseeable future.” The announcement was a welcome end to what has frankly been an unnecessary and risky push for Arctic oil. Shell rolled the dice in one of the most remote and dangerous places on Earth, a place prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, frigid temperatures and months-long darkness, and ultimately came up empty. 

That’s why we’re so thankful for Arctic champions like Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who on the same day that Shell announced its Arctic retreat, introduced legislation to put an end to oil and gas leasing off the Arctic coast. His bill in the House – the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act – mirrors one introduced earlier this year in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). We’re thankful to these lawmakers and those who have joined as cosponsors for standing up for America’s Arctic and pushing our nation to pursue policies aimed at avoiding the worst effects of climate change. 

{mosads}In its press release Shell cited the high costs of drilling and the “challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska” as reasons for its withdrawal from the Arctic, even though the industry has long known that drilling in an environment as harsh and remote as the Arctic would be expensive and unpredictable. What wasn’t unpredictable were the regulations under which Shell was expected to operation. Shell knew what was expected of it at each stop along the approval process. For example, Shell complained about being forced at the last minute by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon drilling simultaneous wells due to concerns over walrus safety. Yet it was later reported that, far from being a surprise, “Shell appeared to be aware of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s prohibition on contemporaneous drilling activities as far back as February 2013, when it sent a letter to the agency objecting to the then-proposed rule.”  

What Shell didn’t mention in its statement was the growing opposition to Arctic drilling and the beating the company was taking in the court of public opinion. From President Obama’s call to action on climate change to Pope Francis making caring for the earth a central theme of his papacy, very significant connections are being made between our continued reliance on fossil fuels and the real world impacts that reliance is having. And it’s especially impossible to ignore the impacts of climate change and development in the fragile Arctic region when some of the world’s most iconic species like walrus and polar bears are already being displaced by the disappearance of Arctic ice, and Arctic communities are facing coastal erosion and the displacement of animals that they have relied on for generations as part of their subsistence culture. 

To that end, millions of Americans, from the northernmost villages in Alaska all the way to Florida, spoke out time and again that the Arctic is no place for oil drilling. This summer saw the birth of the “kayaktivism” movement in Seattle when Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig took up residence in Seattle’s port. In July, citizens across the country banded together for a “Shell No” Day of Action. With more than 20 events in 15 different states, the nationwide protest continued the kayaktivist movement that began in Seattle, and called on Obama to stop Shell – and any other oil company – from drilling in the Arctic Ocean. And the world turned its attention to Arctic drilling yet again when Shell’s damaged Fennica icebreaker was forced down to Portland, Oregon, for repairs, and was then delayed leaving due to additional protests. 

This victory is a fitting end to a drilling effort that will forever be known for Shell’s repeated missteps and blunders. We are at a critical juncture for our planet – the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and as a planet we’re setting new temperature records every year. One powerful way we can slow the effects of climate change is to limit the amount of fossil fuels we are burning, and an effective way to do that is by not opening up new areas – like the Arctic – to intensive drilling. 

Climate change is at our doorstep. Arctic communities and iconic wildlife are feeling the heat of a warming Arctic. As Shell leaves with its tail between its legs, it’s time for Obama to take bold action and seize on this historic opportunity by ensuring that current Arctic leases are not extended and no future leases are offered in the Arctic Ocean. And Congress, please send a strong message, look to the future, and protect the Arctic for our children and our climate future by supporting the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act.

Shogan is the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

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