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Scientists Call for Permanent Stop to Offshore Drilling in U.S. Arctic

A letter signed November 12 by nearly three dozen scientists petitions President Obama to permanently protect the U.S. Arctic from offshore drilling and exploration.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In 2015, President Barack Obama permanently banned oil and gas drilling (4 million hectares (10 million acres) offshore in the Chukchi Sea.Flickr, CC BY 2.0/ShoreZone

In mid-November, the Obama administration announced that it would block new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean for the next five years. But a group of leading scientists is arguing that temporary withdrawal of the areas is not enough – they would like to see a complete stop to those activities.

On November 12, 34 scientists signed a letter to the White House asking for the ban due to the risks associated with offshore drilling, citing the extreme sensitivity of Arctic ecosystems to oil spills and the limited ability to respond to a spill in the Arctic. The letter comes on the heels of other petitions and letters organized by environmental NGOs.

“[W]e are taking risks we cannot manage. We are essentially crossing our fingers that we will cause no severe, adverse events such as the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon oil spills,” the letter said. “This is not the approach of a country committed to sustainability.”

The letter-writers, which include scientists studying climate change, marine biology and ecology, asked President Obama to permanently withdraw the U.S. Arctic Ocean from further oil and gas development.

Among those who signed the letter are Brendan Kelly, former assistant director for polar science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Tim Ragen, a retired marine mammal biologist and former director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.

Ragen, who organized the letter, said it was important for scientists to also speak up on the issue. “Given all of the information we have about climate change and the great difficulty we would have to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic, if we are truly aiming for sustainability, we really need to be able to restrain ourselves when we are not able to respond to the worst risks of oil and gas development,” said Ragen.

Others, including billionaire Tom Steyer, who started the group NextGen Climate, have also called on Obama to invoke the ban before Donald Trump takes office.

On November 18, the U.S. Department of the Interior published its leasing plan for 2017 to 2022. According to the plan, due to the “fragile and unique Arctic ecosystem and recent demonstrated decline in industry interest,” drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off northern Alaska will not be part of the program. The plan also limits drilling in the Cook Inlet, where oil and gas development has occurred in state waters.

“Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward,” said U.S. secretary of the interior Sally Jewell.

Representatives from the oil and gas industry have expressed disappointment with the decision. Lucas Frances, a spokesperson for the Arctic Energy Center, a joint initiative of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, called it a “body blow for the Native communities, businesses, elected officials, military experts and other Alaskans.” He said many people across Alaska will look to the incoming Trump administration to “tear up the lease plan.”

But scientists, environmental groups and philanthropists would like to see that leasing ban extended permanently. Obama has the authority to “withdraw from disposition” any unleased sections of the Outer Continental Shelf under a section of the law that governs offshore drilling – and he has used the law before. In 2014, he made drilling in the waters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay off-limits and did the same in 2015 to parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Previous presidents have also used their authority to stop energy development along the coasts of other U.S. states, including California, Oregon and Washington, and none have yet tried to reverse the decisions made by presidents before them.

Ragen says the White House has not responded to the letter. “The administration took the Arctic off the five-year leasing plan, which I hope implies that they are also considering longer-term or more permanent changes,” he said.

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