Trump ramps up Arctic drilling leases where an oil spill would be impossible to contain or clean up

 

The Trump administration has launched an all-out assault on the Arctic. At least a half-dozen dangerous oil drilling projects are quickly moving forward, threatening pristine habitats with oil spills and undermining global efforts to address climate change.

Last week’s announcement of fossil fuel lease-sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge made big news, for good reason. Industrializing the wild coastal plain in northern Alaska, a move authorized by a sneaky rider in the GOP tax cut bill, has long been strongly opposed by most Americans

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Yet, drilling into the refuge is just the tip of the iceberg. Trump is aggressively pushing Arctic drilling projects on water and land, selling off vast tracts of public lands and oceans, and rolling back drilling safety regulations meant to prevent catastrophic oil spills.

 

In December, Trump administration officials offered almost the entire National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, adjacent to the refuge, to the oil industry. It’s the first step toward drilling into a pristine wilderness that’s home to the world’s largest caribou herds and flocks of migratory birds. 

Trump is aggressively courting the oil industry to launch offshore drilling projects in treacherous federal waters north of Alaska, where a major oil spill would be impossible to contain or clean up.

The Trump administration last month solicited industry interest in the Beaufort Sea fossil fuel leases it wants to offer in 2019. This hasty move to open up the Arctic comes even before the administration completes its five-year offshore leasing plan. That draft plan to up almost all U.S. oceans to dangerous drilling was released in January, widely criticized as reckless and unrealistic, and is now undergoing environmental review.   

In November, the administration gave the Italian company Eni permission to extend its Spy Island offshore drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea into federal waters using risky extended-reach drilling technologies. 

Despite Trump’s protectionist trade rhetoric, that’s not the only foreign entity that he’s inviting into the Arctic. Last month, an official delegation from China did a site visit to northern Alaska, where Trump is supporting a proposed liquid natural gas pipeline and export terminal he agreed to during his visit to China in November.  

Also last fall, the Trump administration held public hearings on Hilcorp Alaska’s Liberty project, which would be the first major offshore drilling project entirely in federal Arctic waters. Alaska oil industry regulators have repeatedly fined the company for safety violations in recent years. They noted that “disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp's approach to its Alaska operations.”        

The potential for disaster with Arctic offshore drilling is huge. A major oil spill in these sensitive waters could easily send endangered species like polar bears and bowhead whales spiraling toward extinction. 

The already-extreme risks of Arctic offshore drilling are being increased by Trump administration efforts to repeal offshore drilling safety rules adopted after Deepwater Horizon and special rules designed specifically for dangerous, remote Arctic drilling. 

The bipartisan National Commission on BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling that examined the disaster strongly criticized Trump’s efforts to roll back safety regulations, including those focused on protecting the Arctic.

“The Commission looked specifically at the hazards in Arctic operations, and recommended several steps to ensure that the science of the Arctic was better known, that native communities were fully consulted, and that better investment in spill containment and response was required,” co-chairs Bob Graham and William Reilly wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last year.

The current roster of dangerous drilling projects is just the beginning. The Trump administration’s long-term offshore leasing plans would open up almost all federal waters around Alaska to offshore drilling starting next year.

Drilling and burning all of the recoverable oil and gas under those hazardous federal waters could release 14.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere and oceans. That would make it impossible to reduce the climate chaos we’re inflicting on future generations. 

Arctic drilling is dangerous to Alaska and the rest of the world. We can’t let Trump succeed in his reckless Arctic ambitions. 

Miyoko Sakashita and an attorney and the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.