Last week, the Trump administration approved a plan for an Italian Company to begin offshore drilling in federal waters off the coast of Alaska. Environmental and Native groups sued to keep the ban on Arctic drilling enacted by the Obama administration, but President Donald Trump signed an executive order to rescind it in April 2017. The lawsuit is pending in a federal court in Alaska, but the drilling is likely to continue despite the ongoing litigation.
Obama had previously granted approval for oil companies to drill off the coast of Alaska. Shell received final clearance to drill in August 2015 despite Sen. Bernie Sanders introducing a bill to ban all drilling in the Arctic. “Developing oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean is incompatible with staying within that global carbon budget and avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” noted the bill. “The Arctic Ocean is home to invaluable and fragile ecosystems, which are critical to fisheries, migratory birds, indigenous populations and subsistence hunters.” It took until December 2016 for Obama to take action, and he did so in anticipation that Trump would increase drilling approvals in the region.
Trump’s recent approval for an Italian company to start exploratory drilling was rushed because the company’s decade long lease on the permits to do so were set to expire at the end of the year.
“Approving this Arctic drilling plan at the 11th hour makes a dangerous project even riskier,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “An oil spill here would do incredible damage, and it would be impossible to clean up. The Trump administration clearly cares only about appeasing oil companies, no matter its legal obligations or the threats to polar bears or our planet.”
An oil spill in the area could release more than 21 million gallons of gas, and cleanup would be nearly impossible due to the remoteness of the Arctic and minimal infrastructure in the region. The nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away from the proposed drilling sites. A report from the National Research Council in 2014 noted that the United States is far from ready to deal with an oil spill in the Arctic and cited that research needs to be done regarding how oil behaves in the Arctic conditions. Additionally, there is no plan for wildlife in the incident of a spill, and any spill would require extensive coordinating with Russia, which is unlikely given the current political tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
The Arctic is one of the last frontiers for the oil industry. It contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s untapped oil and gas. Embarking into this new oil frontier will have disastrous consequences for climate change and the environment. The Arctic is already facing drastic effects of climate change: Summer sea ice is expected to entirely disappear in the region by 2030. The Arctic been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet for the past 50 years. By expanding approvals for exploratory drilling the the region, the Trump administration is not only failing to mitigate these trends: It is worsening them.
“I think Arctic drilling is insane. I think that countries around the world would be very well advised to put restrictions on drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean,” former Vice President Al Gore told the Guardian in 2015. “I think the Deepwater Horizon spill was warning enough. The conditions are so hostile for human activity there. I think it’s a mistake to drill for oil in the Arctic. I think that ought to be banned.”