Despite oil industry ads, Obama Administration should continue to protect the Arctic Ocean

It is a critical time for the Arctic. In the next few months, the Obama administration will decide whether or not to schedule new oil and gas lease sales in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. This choice comes in the wake of Shell’s unsuccessful 2015 exploration, oil companies’ decisions to relinquish almost all of the leases they owned in the Arctic Ocean, and the cancellation of the most recently scheduled sales, partially due to lack of interest by oil companies. Even though companies have recently walked away from the billions of dollars they invested in leases, and have no current plans to explore, an entity called the “Arctic Energy Center” has engaged in an aggressive publicity campaign to persuade the administration to sell more leases. The administration should see through this self-serving effort and remove the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Five-Year Leasing Program.

According to its Facebook page, the Arctic Energy Center is “a joint initiative of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.” In other words, it is a front for two trade associations that lobby on behalf of oil companies—companies like those that looked unsuccessfully for oil in the Arctic Ocean for nearly 40 years and those that hope to benefit by supporting future exploration. It is telling that, other than Shell, none of the companies that purchased leases in the Chukchi Sea in the most recent sale are part of either trade association supporting the Arctic Energy Center. Shell, of course, has given up almost all of its leases and ceased Arctic exploration.

{mosads}Nonetheless, the Arctic Energy Center would have us believe that companies want to buy leases and that having companies in the Arctic Ocean is good for national security. To be blunt, if we are depending on multinational oil companies to protect the United States, we are in a lot of trouble. Shell spent billions of dollars and took nearly a decade to complete a single, unsuccessful well in the Chukchi Sea. Along the way, the company’s lack of preparedness and attention to detail led to fines, investigations, and, most famously, the grounding and eventual scrapping of its drill rig, the Kulluk. If Shell can’t manage its own operations responsibly, how can it be reasonable to depend on the company’s presence in the Arctic to protect our national security?

That is not to say that our government should ignore the Arctic Ocean or the clear environmental threats to it. Important steps to manage new economic activity and preserve natural resources—like ratifying the Law of Sea Treaty, building new icebreakers, and protecting important areas—can be taken without fostering risky oil and gas exploration. More generally, we should be taking steps to address climate change and transition to clean energy, both of which would do more to improve national security than selling leases to multinational oil companies.

The first Five-Year Program was created in 1980. In that plan—and every one since—the government has scheduled lease sales in the Arctic Ocean. Each time, the government has predicted that substantial benefits would result from the sale of leases and the production of oil and gas. Each time, the government has been wrong. Rather than benefits for the American people, leasing and exploration have resulted in risk, controversy, and near disaster.

It is time to chart a new course in the Arctic Ocean—one based on science and sustainability, not the desires of oil companies. By not scheduling sales, the government will free up resources that can be used to promote renewable ocean energy sources, fix leasing rules that are outdated and insufficient, and fulfill commitments to take meaningful action to address climate change. Forgoing leasing in the Arctic Ocean would not “signal retreat,” as the Arctic Energy Center claims. In fact, Russia has recently announced a moratorium on new leasing in the Arctic, and a five-year break from leasing would be consistent with the recent agreements President Obama entered with Canada and the Nordic nations.

Ultimately, there is no rush to schedule lease sales. If there is oil under the Arctic Ocean, it has been there for millennia, and it will be there for millennia more. The Obama administration should not bend to pressure from oil and gas trade associations to continue the failed business-as-usual model of leasing. Instead, the administration should continue its leadership in the Arctic by foregoing leasing, protecting important places, and moving toward a sustainable energy future.

Andy Sharpless is CEO of Oceana, the world’s largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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