When Native Alaskans and government agencies – 12 federal agencies, 19 state agencies, and four local Alaskan agencies – agree that Arctic drilling can be done safely and responsibly, activists have had to resort to extreme stunts and gimmicks, choreographed for media attention, to promote their campaign to ban Arctic oil and gas development.
While Arctic Energy Center welcomes an open and honest debate about our energy future, the stunts staged by activist groups distract from the serious work of developing our energy resources; of strengthening the safety and environmental protections undergirding development; of collaborating with stakeholders and local, state, and federal regulators to ensure development is done safely and responsibly; of securing our nation’s energy supply for decades to come – and of facilitating a foreign policy strategy that is not dictated by our dependence on foreign energy sources.
What Native Alaskans and Regulators Are Saying
Even though activists opposing Arctic drilling often claim that their campaign is “about people,” and “particularly indigenous groups,” their efforts are not always appreciated by Native Alaskans, who have said,
“When it comes to energy development, many outsiders try to speak for Alaskans, but most know little about our communities or our way of life, and they certainly don’t know how vital Arctic resource development is for thousands of Alaskans.”
Likewise, Crawford Patkotak, chairman of the board for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), which represents 11,000 Inupiat shareholders, said their “real concern” is being sacrificed in activist campaigns to “save the world”:
“We’re concerned that the environmentalists are trying to save the world at the expense of the Inupiat people of the Arctic Slope. … That’s our real concern.”
Bloomberg describes this awkward mismatch – and the activists’ misguided efforts – in an article titled “Why Native Alaskans Support Shell’s Arctic Drilling”:
“Activists trying to stop Shell’s offshore oil drilling in the U.S.’s Arctic Ocean region invoke the interests of native Alaskans. ‘These communities depend on this environment for food and resources and have stewarded it for centuries,’ Greenpeace says, as part of its ‘The People vs. Shell’ campaign—what the group describes as possibly ‘the most important fight in environmental history.’
A lot of native Alaskans, including many who live along the state’s North Slope, would prefer that Greenpeace mind its own business.”
Activist crusades against Arctic drilling threaten to drown out the voice of Native Alaskans, many of whom believe that Arctic oil and gas resources can be developed alongside the hunting and fishing that they depend for subsistence.
North Slope Borough chief administrative officer Jacob Adams, Sr. attests to this “harmony” between oil and gas development and the subsistence way of life:
“We firmly believe that the oil and gas and our animals can live in harmony by ensuring that the oil and gas development is done in a manner that won’t affect the well-being of our subsistence resources.”
ASRC’s Richard K. Glenn, which represents 11,000 Inupiat shareholders, rejected the “either/or” dichotomy of “preserve or develop” before Congress in June:
“The national debate over Arctic resource development is often framed in an ‘either/or’ argument: Preserve or develop- as if they are mutually exclusive. We find this paradigm unnecessary and ill-fitted to worldwide realities.
The Arctic Ocean and its marine resources are a part of our home and identity just as farms and farming are a part of the landscape and identity of many of your communities. … That means that we are invested, far more than any federal agency or nongovernmental organization, in the resources that lie beneath and within our waters, and that we understand the benefits and risks associated with development of these resources. We do believe those resources can be responsibly developed to support local jobs and provide revenues that will allow our communities to invest in water and sewer systems and housing and hospitals. And so we live in this balance, this balance of resource development and environmental stewardship.”
Federal regulators, who are involved in Arctic oil and gas operations every step of the way, have emphasized that large oil spills are “unlikely,” as the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) explained in a factsheet,
“Even in BOEM’s hypothetical scenario, the data suggest that a large spill in the exploration phase is very unlikely.”
Keeping in mind that BOEM’s definition of “large” oil spills are spills that exceed 1,000 barrels, BOEM emphasized,
“[T]he spills modeled by BOEM are very unlikely to be the catastrophic historical events one might think of when we think of oil spills. For historical perspective, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is estimated to have been from 257,000 to 750,000 barrels; the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is thought to have been 3.19 million barrels.”
Furthermore, after overseeing the Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration has instituted new safeguards to “protect the environment beyond what has ever existed before” to ensure that development is “done at the highest standards possible,” as President Obama described in his weekly address last month,
“I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well.
That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska. We don’t rubber-stamp permits.”
While oil and gas operators, stakeholders, and regulators at the local, state, and federal level approach Arctic development with the gravity it deserves, activists resort instead to extreme stunts for media attention.
Let’s take a look.
Activist Antics, Stunts, and Gimmicks
(Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Earlier this year, so-called “kayaktivists” gathered in the Seattle harbor to protest Arctic drilling. Leaving aside the fact that petroleum is a key ingredient in the kayaks and oars the activists used and the life vests that kept them safe, media reports of their campaign rarely mentioned the environmental damage these activists wreaked in their “kayaktivism.” According to non-profit group Global Underwater Explorers (GUE)-Seattle, these activists left behind “concrete blocks and thick steel mooring cables” that endangered the marine environment:
“On Monday, May 19th, 2015, an environmental activist group moored a barge known as the Solar Pioneer in Alki Seacrest Park in protest of Shell’s Polar Pioneer arctic drilling rig housed at Seattle’s Harbor Island Terminal 5. In the process of mooring, the activist group dropped concrete blocks and thick steel mooring cables and inadvertently damaged a popular underwater park known as Alki Cove 2. As the barge rose and fell with the tides, the steel mooring cables swept the area underneath causing additional collateral damage to the marine environment as well as endangering recreational divers.”
A KING-TV article explained:
“Used for staging their protests, the barge anchors were originally dropped into a popular dive spot. They dropped 4,000-pound anchors into a habitat known for several different kinds of marine species.”
A GUE member told KING-TV,
“Having someone else who is concerned about the environment trash the environment, some people were upset, understandably so.”
(Source: Washington Post)
Activists built a “giant people-powered polar bear” that is “part protest, part performance,” used first in 2013 and again earlier this month. They also regularly don polar bear costumes to protest Arctic drilling – including during the pope’s recent Washington, D.C. visit, when a young man who “doesn’t know a lot about the pope’s views” was asked by a friend to suit up as a polar bear in exchange for “maybe a six-pack if he’s nice.”
While activists use polar bears as a mascot in their Arctic campaign, federal regulators not only study polar bears in the Arctic to better understand their movements, distribution, and behavior, but they are also required to evaluate potential impacts of oil and gas development on polar bears as part of their permit application review process – even before they sell any leases. For example, BOEM, which handles oil and gas lease sales and conducts environmental assessments for energy projects, is required under the Endangered Species Act to conduct assessments to ensure that the activities it authorizes “are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species:
“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires federal agencies to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) whenever a proposed federal action may affect threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat.
BOEM consults with NMFS and the USFWS for Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) geological and geophysical activities, leasing, exploration, and development and production activities to ensure that BOEM-authorized actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species, or to result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat.”
A “Finding of No Significant Impact” from BOEM, which is mandatory before drilling can proceed, generally reads:
“It is my determination that the Proposed Action would not cause any significant impacts [and] that implementing the Proposed Action does not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment within the meaning of Section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.”
(Source: Arctic Journal)
(Source: NL Times)
In August, activists dropped a giant rubber banana on the roof of Shell’s office in Amsterdam, along with a banner that read “75% of disaster” in Dutch, alluding to the oft-cited yet misrepresented figure of a 75% chance of an oil spill – a myth that BOEM has dispelled in a factsheet:
“Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is it accurate to say that ‘If Shell’s Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is approved, there is a 75-
percent chance of a large oil spill?’
Climbing up Rigs and Jumping off Bridges
In 2011, 2013, 2014, and again in April this year, activists have scaled and “occupied” Arctic oil rigs to protest Arctic drilling. In July, activists rappelled off a bridge in Portland, Oregon as part of a “hanging blockade,” attempting to stop an icebreaker – an instrumental part of the spill response plan – from leaving for the Arctic.
While the activists are clearly willing to go to dangerous extremes to make a point – and to snag a media hit – safety is the top priority for both operators and regulators. For example, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) requires round-the-clock supervision of Arctic drilling activities:
“BSEE also would maintain a 24/7 inspector presence on board each rig in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas if drilling takes place.”
In addition, BSEE enforces a comprehensive set of safety guidelines, including:
These guidelines can be very specific:
BSEE also takes personal safety guidelines very seriously:
As activists risk their lives, as well the lives of crewmembers aboard drilling vessels, to make a statement, oil and gas operators and regulators continue to treat safety as a matter of paramount importance.
Researching, developing, and refining engineering technology to meet our nation’s energy needs safely and responsibly is a serious undertaking – it takes more than just putting on a costume. Local Alaskans who would benefit from more energy development, and future generations of Americans who would benefit from greater energy security, deserve more than just stunts and gimmicks.