Gallego & Lieu to Obama: Do the Right Thing. Ban All Arctic Drilling Before You Leave Office
Change in Arctic sea ice from 1990 to 2015. You can see that almost all of the older ice, ice that persists across multiple years, is gone. At some point in the next few years, perhaps next year if we get an especially warm one, the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer (source; click to enlarge).
by Gaius Publius
"The question now is whether we will have the courage to act [to preserve our climate] before it’s too late."
–Barack Obama, 2013
You may remember the 2015 drama around the Obama administration's approval of drilling in the (rapidly melting) Arctic Ocean. The timeline is this, in headlines:
- "Obama Administration Approves Shell's Drilling Plan For The Arctic" (Huffington Post, May 11, 2015)
- "Shell says it will end Alaska offshore Arctic drilling" (USA Today, September 28, 2015)
- "Obama administration strengthens Arctic drilling restrictions" (LA Times, July 12 2016)
new Arctic lease sales are contemplated in the Interior Department’s draft offshore drilling plan for the years 2017–2022, and the oil industry is pushing hard to retain those leases when the plan is finalized later this year.The "ask" from Reps. Lieu and Gallego is simple (my emphasis):
Removing Arctic leases from the five-year plan would take away the near-term threat, but it would not preclude a future administration from moving forward with drilling in the region. The president can align our government’s policy with the latest climate research by using his authority to permanently withdraw the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas development, sending a powerful market signal that the era of ever-expanding fossil fuel production into frontier areas like the Arctic is over.In other words, don't just rewrite the five-year plan — permanently ban fossil fuel extraction in the all parts of the Arctic that the U.S. controls.
It's a simple request, and one that would not only make Obama appear to be on the side of climate solutions, but actually be on that side as well. (I've written about Obama's climate dilemma here: "Climate Change and Barack Obama's Legacy." This is another instance of that tension, but it's also an opportunity for the president to prove the cynics wrong.)
Shorter Gallego and Lieu: Do the right thing. Ban Arctic drilling.
This is one to watch. If Obama doesn't ban all Arctic oil extraction, the door will be open for the next president to grant more leases. Remember the timeline above: Obama granted the leases originally, but Shell found the project economically unfeasible, especially given the low selling price of oil, and abandoned it. Only afterward, by almost a year, did the administration issue new safety rules. The subject is not closed until President Obama permanently closes it.
The main part of Gallego and Lieu's argument is below. They make an excellent case. Note their appeal to his "legacy" (my emphasis):
In the Arctic, Obama faces a pivotal climate decision before he leaves office. The temperature in the region is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and the resultant loss of sea ice has spurred oil companies in recent years to seek to drill in America’s portion of the Arctic Ocean. Although Shell and other companies have halted their efforts over the past year, new Arctic lease sales are contemplated in the Interior Department’s draft offshore drilling plan for the years 2017–2022, and the oil industry is pushing hard to retain those leases when the plan is finalized later this year.The fact that oil drilled in the Arctic won't reach the market for "decades" is itself a compelling reason. If we're still burning oil and gas two or three decades from now, it really is over, and I think Obama understands that, at least intellectually. What I don't think he gets is that he's going to be held responsible if, with his great power and responsibility, he fails to act.
While there are many reasons to oppose Arctic drilling, from preserving the pristine environment to the alarming lack of infrastructure needed to contain or clean up a spill, a key one is that Arctic drilling represents a long-term investment in more fossil fuels, a path that cannot be reconciled with successfully addressing climate change.
Because the Arctic Ocean is such a remote and unforgiving place, oil produced there won’t reach consumers for two or three decades due to the long lead times required to make the necessary infrastructure investments. That’s well past the point when the world needs to have transitioned toward cleaner fuels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In addition, new research published in the leading journal Nature specifically calls out Arctic drilling as incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. It’s one reason why the Democratic Party platform and Hillary Clinton both oppose Arctic drilling.
Obama has already taken significant steps to combat climate change, and he has a unique opportunity to cement his legacy in the coming months. Removing Arctic leases from the five-year plan would take away the near-term threat, but it would not preclude a future administration from moving forward with drilling in the region. The president can align our government’s policy with the latest climate research by using his authority to permanently withdraw the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas development, sending a powerful market signal that the era of ever-expanding fossil fuel production into frontier areas like the Arctic is over.
As we saw in Paris, when the United States leads, other nations join us in elevating their climate ambitions. That’s why we hope for the sake of our national security that President Obama will seize the opportunity to continue his climate leadership and permanently ban drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean. We have an urgent responsibility to take the necessary steps today that will allow future generations to avoid climate chaos and the security threats it poses.
Will Obama have the "courage" (his own word) to act on that understanding? Stay tuned.