Following the exhaustive review and final approval of Arctic oil and gas exploration from the Obama Administration, several members of Congress sent a public letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior opposing the Administration’s decision to explore in the U.S. Arctic. Unfortunately the letter was premised upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal government’s deep and detailed review of Arctic drilling and repeats misinformation spread by those opposed to all oil and gas development, not just Arctic exploration. The following information details why assertions to impede Arctic exploration do not account for the facts at hand.
Assertion 1: Any Arctic drilling would be inconsistent with the important goal of keeping climate change to 2 degrees C or less by 2050.
Drilling in the Arctic is fundamentally no different from a climate perspective than drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, West Texas or anywhere else on the planet. There is nothing special about Arctic resources that make them any more or less impactful to carbon emissions.
Implying that we need to cut hydrocarbons in order to restrict global warming to less than 2 degrees ignores a very important point – the U.S. and the world economy need hydrocarbons to power most aspects of daily life. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, global demand for energy will continue to increase, and as it does, hydrocarbons are projected to provide the majority of our future needs. The technology needed to make the world energy-economy carbon free is just not ready in a scalable and economic way. Handicapping U.S. energy development now -while other Arctic countries, like Russia, pursue their opportunities- will only damage our energy security in the future. Keeping America’s energy resources close to home is a good economic, national security, and environmental policy.
Assertion 2: Industry has failed to develop the necessary technology for robust and realistic oil spill prevention and response; this should conclusively eliminate such waters from oil and gas activity of any kind.
With environmental protection at the forefront of the entire federal review of Arctic exploration, and an unprecedented amount of federal regulatory oversight, robust precautions are in place for spill prevention and response. As noted in BOEM’s Chukchi Sea Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193: Record of Decision, Shell’s Oil Response Spill Plan must undergo a rigorous approval process with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), prior to any exploratory activity in the Chukchi Sea.
As a part of that process Shell had to submit a detailed proposal including well casing design, equipment design, testing procedures, safety protocol, third party certifications of key equipment and rig information- for technical adequacy, safety, and environmental compliance.
Assertion 3: Shell has not demonstrated how it plans to adjust its operations after 2012.
BOEM incorporated lessons learned from past operations into its conditional approval of the current exploration plan in the Chukchi Sea. The Bureau has since added numerous, stringent safety requirements to Shell’s exploration plan, and the company has met or exceeded all of the following requirements:
Assertion 4: There is a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill occurrence if the Chukchi leases are developed, this level of risk is unacceptable.
This is a tired old trope that has been refuted by the Secretary of Interior herself.
Since the Interior Department’s initial analysis, BOEM has issued a factsheet to clarify the meaning of the 75 percent statistic. Entitled “Oil Spill Risk in the Chukchi Sea Outer Continental Shelf: The 75 percent figure: what does it mean?”, this details exactly why it is inaccurate to claim that the approval comes with a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill.
And this all ignores decades of successful development of oil and gas in the Arctic, and other regions globally with more challenging operating conditions, without major incident.
The truth is that with good preparation, modern technology and strong oversight, exploration and development of Arctic resources is safe by any reasonable measure.
Assertion 5: The U.S. doesn’t need oil so badly that we should drill in the Arctic.
Arctic exploration is essential to future U.S. energy security. Although domestic supply is abundant at present time, the U.S. shale boom is expected to decline in the 2030s and 2040s, around the time that Arctic production, if exploration begins now, could enter the global market. As described in the National Petroleum Council’s report “Arctic Potential”:
If development starts now, the long lead times necessary to bring on new crude oil production from Alaska would coincide with a long-term expected decline of U.S. Lower 48 production.
Assertion 6: The Chukchi Sea off the northwest of Alaska is a remote and fragile region that is part of the migration routes of beluga and bowhead whales.
Despite concerns over bowhead whales and other marine mammals, the Obama Administration’s decision to approve exploration of the Outer Continental Shelf was premised upon several stipulations, including that site-specific monitoring programs be conducted in order to provide extensive information on any impact on marine life to prevent conflicts between operations and native species. All exploration and development will take place within these stringent requirements and be robustly overseen by on-site federal regulatory officials.
Many similar arguments have been made in the past regarding other Arctic energy projects including the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. A visit to the pipeline today, or review of actual impacts seen (or not), demonstrate clearly that those claims were not well founded.
Assertion 7: Alaska Natives reject such development because it will interfere with their traditional subsistence way of life.
The global Arctic region is home to some 4 million people, many of which support development and believe that oil and gas extraction is essential to their future economic wellbeing. The communities across Alaska’s North Slope Borough account for almost 10,000 people. In 2014, the Arctic Inupiat Corporation LLC (AIO) was established accounting for seven Native Corporations which have established a strategic partnership for exploring and developing the Chukchi Sea. These Native Corporations are an important representation of the Native communities, as established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). According to Rex Rock, Sr., Point Hope whaling captain and CEO of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, “Our communities have come to realize, and accept, that our survival depends on a healthy natural environment and ongoing resource development. Safe, responsible oil and gas development is the only industry that has remained long enough to foster improvements to our remote communities.”