A Tale of Growing Desperation: Activists and Lease Sale 193

February 11, 2016 in Blog, Local Perspective

The Burger J well was drilled in the Chukchi Sea just last summer, but it was the culmination of a process that began a decade ago, with the preparation of a lease sale covering 34 million acres in the area. With DOI’s Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the lease sale published in the Federal Register in 2005 and its first three-volume Final EIS released in 2007 – followed by its 2011 Final Supplemental EIS (SEIS), yet another Draft SEIS in 2014, and the Final SEIS in 2015 – activist claims that the environmental assessment process for the lease sale was “rushed” are amusingly incredulous. Yet, just a mere two months after they made such a claim, they filed a new complaint alleging a “‘loss of scientific integrity”’ during the SEIS preparation process. If that sounds like a reach, that’s because it is.

Nevertheless, this latest complaint is exactly what we would expect of the activists, who have targeted this lease sale for years now: Every time the federal government releases a report affirming the fact that Arctic oil and gas development can occur safely and responsibly – therefore inconveniently at odds with campaigns to end all fossil fuel development – they fire off outlandish claims like clockwork, each more of a reach than the next. But these claims are getting more and more farfetched, especially given DOI Secretary Sally Jewell’s acknowledgment that “Alaska is a critical component of our nation’s energy portfolio.” At the end of the day, however far they run, these activists just cannot escape from the increasingly obvious reality that their campaign to stop Arctic oil and gas development is losing, has been losing, and their antics point only to their struggles to sustain public interest – and funding – in their activism.

Here’s an abridged history of the activists’ more recent sound and fury on the lease sale:

When DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) first published a Draft SEIS for the lease sale in October 2014, Center for Biological Diversity declared that it was “a recipe for disaster.” Greenpeace submitted a comment to BOEM calling the lease sale “unlawful.” Greenpeace even alleged “back room meetings” between Shell and BOEM officials, even though, as a reporter noted, “It is common for oil and gas producers seeking government approval of broad exploration plans and specific drilling permits to have back-and-forth discussions with the regulators.” After BOEM released its Final SEIS in February 2015, Friends of the Earth said approving the lease sale would be “unsafe” and held a rally to protest offshore drilling (on the invitation: “Visuals will include a person dressed as a polar bear and signs”).  When DOI published a Record of Decision in March 2015 on the lease sale, which formally approved BOEM’s Final SEIS, Friends of the Earth and Center for Biological Diversity protested…yet again.

Then came claims that scientific findings were altered in the SEIS preparation process. Greenpeace breathlessly recounted that the DOI “rushed out” the SEIS. The National Audubon Society, which has joined Greenpeace and other groups in litigation against Arctic development, similarly claimed that BOEM “cut corners” and conducted evaluations “at a breakneck pace” (employees had to work overtime, over the weekend, and over the holidays!), which Arctic Energy Center reviewed two months ago.

The DOI’s Office of Inspector General (IG) launched an investigation at the end of 2014 specifically to address claims of political interference in the preparation of the SEIS, and, after a year, it ultimately “did not find any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of any employees involved in this matter” and concluded that “the timeline did not compromise the quality and thoroughness of the document as a basis for decisionmaking by DOI officials” – case closed.

Right on cue, the activist groups took issue with the report’s findings: As they wrote in their newest complaint, “Our complaint is based on the findings of the OIG report…” They explained that the complaint was “not focused on allegations of falsification or editing of scientific conclusions” – after all, the IG’s report refuted those allegations, which they had made previously – “but rather on the concept of ‘loss of scientific integrity’…” In other words, after coming up short on evidence and facts to support their case, the activists have had to resort to concepts and theories.

It’s unsurprising that the activists have had to reach far and wide for just about anything to substantiate their claims, given that an extensiveand growing – body of research indicates that Arctic oil and gas development can be done safely and responsibly. Advancements in scientific understanding of Arctic conditions should be cheered, not jeered, even though they do diminish the activists’ overarching campaign to ban fossil fuel development. That’s why they are left to cling desperately to anything tangentially related to their campaign, as a Ketchikan Daily News editorial noted,

“What began as a complaint against a specific facet of resource development morphed quickly into a bald acknowledgment of the groups’ end-game objective. No oil, gas or coal extraction from any federal land, anywhere.”

In Short

At a time when federal regulations have not only imposed insurmountable hurdles for operators in the region but have also taken away the opportunity for new development, the activists have had to scramble to identify new villains for their campaigns. They have moved on from targeting oil companies, to President Obama, to BOEM officials, and now to the DOI’s IG. But what they are treating as a game of whack-a-mole is a matter of livelihood for Natives who live there, who are tired of “environmentalists and their thinly disguised fundraising efforts.”

Perhaps the next time the activists launch a campaign to keep vital energy resources in the ground, they should make a concerted effort to stay grounded in facts. But then again, perhaps the reason they haven’t done so thus far is because the two simply cannot be reconciled.