Protecting the Arctic While Promoting Offshore Drilling

By now you have probably heard that President Obama wants to open the Atlantic Coast to offshore drilling, while he asks Congress to designate the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness.

While there isn’t a chance the Republican majority will forego drilling in the Alaska Refuge, they are more than happy for Obama to open the Atlantic Ocean to oil drilling – something no Republican president has been able to achieve in 40 years.

In fact, they are considering the idea of paying for an Infrastructure Bill with royalties from offshore drilling and drilling on public lands. Experts say it wouldn’t come anywhere near the amount of money needed to maintain and upgrade infrastructure.

Obama’s 5-Year Offshore Drilling Plan from 2017-2022  allows oil/gas drilling to expand across the Gulf of Mexico in 10 lease sales, and one lease sale would be allowed in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet off Alaska – crafted to protect sensitive areas (like they all aren’t sensitive). 

He would ban drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and wants it permanently protected.

The response from Republicans is predictable: "This administration has effectively declared war on Alaska," says Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). As part of the current Keystone pipeline debate, her amendment (to be voted on today) would open up wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife refuge to potential oil drilling.

In the Atlantic ocean, where there’s enormous potential for offshore wind, the President would hold one lease sale off the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Republicans hold the majority in those states and favor offshore drilling, but Democrats in Northeast states hate the idea.

That means pounding seismic tests to find the oil and gas, which kills millions of whales, dolphins and marine life. 

"Offshore oil spills don’t respect state boundaries. A spill off the coast of North Carolina could affect Massachusetts and a spill off the coast of Georgia could affect New Jersey," says Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).

"All the risk is put on the backs of our shore communities, and all of the reward goes to Big Oil," says Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "Oil companies don’t need another handout. They don’t need another gift from the federal government. They’re doing just fine with the billions of dollars of tax breaks that Congress won’t repeal."

"This plan puts the entire eastern seaboard at risk of a catastrophic oil spill, especially because Congress failed to enact offshore safety legislation after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy," notes Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ).  Interior says it is working on enhanced safety rules.

Yet, Sally Jewel, Secretary of Interior, calls it a "balanced proposal" that’s not set in stone. "It makes available nearly 80% of undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop."

"Unfortunately, the administration’s five-year plan amounts to climate denial. The administration needs to harmonize all of its policies with climate science, not just some of them," says Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International.

The previous 5-Year Plan, released in 2011, kept both coasts off-limits to offshore drilling.

Arctic Refuge 

The environmental community has fought for decades to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which is always sought after for drilling

Caribou migration: 

Arctic Caribou Migration

At 19.8 million acres, it is America’s largest wildlife refuge and  one of the few intact ecosystems we have left. "The Coastal Plain is one of the few remaining places in the country as pristine today as it was when the oldest Alaska Native communities first set eyes on it, is too precious to put at risk," says President Obama.

"Each year, as the darkness of the Arctic winter brightens into spring, as the snow melts and the hills and valleys slowly turn green, the tens of thousands of members of the Porcupine caribou herd begin their great migration – traveling some 1,500 miles through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain," says the Whitehouse.

Home to the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic, it provides crucial habitat for wolves (under attack elsewhere), arctic fox, muskoxen, grizzly bears and irreplaceable calving grounds for caribou. It’s the largest onshore denning area for America’s polar bears, severely threatened by climate change. 200 species of birds migrate from the Coastal Plain to all 50 states and 42 species of fish are found in lagoons in this remote, undisturbed wilderness.

"Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come," says Jewell.

The Department of Interior will manage it as wilderness regardless of what Congress does, but that puts it in jeopardy under the next President.

The US is already the world’s top of oil and gas producer and as  President Obama says, there’s no good argument against preserving this wonder. True, and there’s also no argument to continue opening new areas to oil/gas drilling when he knows we have to leave it in the ground because of climate change.

Obama made a video announcement about ANWR on Airforce 1 on his way to India:

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