Nobody in their right mind vacations in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas. Only hard core geography buffs can even name them. Instagram isn't filled with photographs of close encounters with Arctic whales or polar bears. It is a cold and hostile environment.
But underneath, there may be as much as 30 billion barrels of oil, and as of this week, the fate of that unique part of the world — waters that, while hostile to humans, support an abundance of marine life not found elsewhere around the planet — may never be the same. That's because the Obama administration has decided to allow Shell Gulf of Mexico to return to drilling exploratory oil and gas wells there this summer.
As the Deepwater Horizon disaster of five years ago demonstrated, off-shore oil drilling carries significant risks. But as much as that explosion and the enormous oil spill that resulted from it proved disastrous for the Gulf of Mexico, the stakes on the Chukchi shelf may actually be higher. It was relatively easy, albeit expensive, to quickly muster Coast Guard and other disaster response resources to Louisiana in 2010 to help clean up that mess, but the waters within the Arctic Circle are another matter entirely.
Under such conditions, Shell needed to be held to an extraordinarily high standard — one that the company failed to meet when it received initial approval several years ago and which it does not appear to have met now. Even the U.S. Department of Interior's own Environmental Impact Statement predicted a "75 percent chance of one or more large spills happening." That should not be regarded as an acceptable risk.
The danger is not only to migratory species, marine mammals like the walrus or ice seal or local Inuit tribes that are supported by fishing but to all human beings living on this planet. As much as President Barack Obama claims to be concerned about man-made climate change and lowering the production of destructive greenhouse gases, the combustion of 30 billion more barrels of oil now safely tucked under the Arctic will result in 12.9 billion additional metric tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This is absolutely the wrong direction for U.S. energy policy to take. Oil is a finite resource no matter how much high-risk drilling the U.S. and other countries undertake. Continuing the nation's dependence on cheap petroleum is not a sustainable policy. Worse, it will only accelerate the pace of climate change with the rising sea levels, more frequent and harsh weather-related disasters, drought and international political upheaval that is expected to accompany it.
History has demonstrated that off-shore drilling results in accidental spills even in conditions far more favorable than available in the Arctic. Yet the Obama administration seems willing to make that gamble — much as it was willing to roll the dice with Maryland's coastal fishing and tourism industries when it rather inexplicably approved drilling off the coast of Virginia and some other East Coast states four months ago.
Why has President Obama taken an appropriately cautious position on the Keystone XL natural gas pipeline only to be so generous with off-shore drilling here and in the Arctic? It's difficult not to see a political calculation here, a choice to give his party an "all of the above" energy policy that might offset criticisms of recent efforts undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants — a policy derided as a "war on coal" by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others in his party.
"See," the Democrats can say, "we want to keep energy prices as low as possible, too, by granting these off-shore leases." Or it might just be a sop to those handful of labor unions that have supported Shell's plan because of the jobs it will generate. In either case, what a shortsighted and costly policy choice it could prove to be. Bad enough that Shell appears ill-prepared for a major spill and its consequences to the region, but the decision will cause incalculable harm to this nation's climate change policy at a time when international cooperation on this fraught but perilous matter seems more likely than it has for years.