Dear Mr. President: Why on Earth Are You Allowing Shell's Arctic Drilling?

Shell's arctic drilling will likely begin this month in the Chukchi Sea.

A Greenpeace environmental activist hangs a banner on a Shell gas station sign in Prague May 10, 2012. The activists are protesting against Shell's Arctic drilling project in the north of Alaska. (Photo: David Cerny / Reuters) 

Sep 4, 2012· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The Obama administration has authorized Royal Dutch Shell to begin preparatory drilling in the icy, vulnerable waters of the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles northwest of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean.

On Thursday of last week, the Federal Bureau of Ocean Management issued a permit that will allow Shell to drill holes at certain depths in the ocean floor, even though the company’s oil spill containment barge has not yet been completed.

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency made things even easier for Shell, granting a one-year air pollution permit that will enable the generators on Shell’s offshore drill ship to emit nitrous dioxide and ammonia at levels that are currently above federal safety limits.

MORE: Polar Bears Beware! Shell Oil Is Coming to Town

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar defended the administration’s decision, telling reporters that Shell is prohibited from drilling far enough into the ocean floor to reach oil until the company’s barge has been certified.

While final permits have not yet been issued, last week’s events represent a huge step forward for Shell, which has fought for seven years to begin drilling in the Arctic, and has spent $4.5 billion on the effort.

This a devastating disappointment for environmental advocates and some officials, who have raised serious concerns about the impacts of an oil spill on fragile Arctic ecosystems.

Shell has submitted plans to drill in both the Chukchi and the Beaufort Seas—U.S. territory in the Arctic—which teem with endangered wildlife.

These seas are home to one-fifth of the world’s endangered polar bears, as well as endangered bowhead whales, seals, and tens of thousands of migratory birds that arrive seasonally to breed, according to the Alaska Wilderness League.

Arctic bearded seals, spotted seals, and Pacific walrus are among the Arctic species that are so threatened that the National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating whether to list them under the Endangered Species Act.

Just last month, Greenpeace scientists found deep-sea corals growing in a dense formation where Shell plans to drill.

Furthermore, Inupiat Eskimos of Alaska’s Northern Slope rely on Arctic ecosystems that are essential to their ways of life.

According to the National Academy of Sciences and reports from Inupiat subsistence hunters, onshore drilling in the Arctic has already changed the migratory patterns of endangered bowhead whales by up to 30 miles.

The possibility of an oil spill that could irrevocably damage the Arctic is not remote.

The oil industry reported over 4,500 spills on Alaska’s Northern Slope and Beaufort Sea relating to onshore drilling activities between 1996 and 2004. These spills involved more than 1.9 million gallons of diesel fuel, oil, acid, biocide, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, and more.

In light of increased threats to the region due to climate change, environmental advocates have questioned why the Obama administration has bent over backward to relax standards for the industry.

“[It] is yet another sign from the Obama administration that they are putting the whims of a corporate giant over the future of one of our nation’s most valued natural treasures,” Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a public statement.

But Shell has its eye on the prize, as do the five other companies that plan to probe the Arctic for oil and gas. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that there are 25 to 27 billion barrels of oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

In 2011, Royal Dutch Shell was the number one oil company in the world, earning $484 billion in revenues and $30.9 billion in profits.

Shell has until September 24 to complete its preparatory drilling activities; federal regulations require that drilling end 38 days before Arctic ice moves in for the winter. The company is seeking a two-week extension.

Whether Shell strikes oil within the month or next year, the race for the Arctic will have begun, and it takes no great leap to imagine the region full of wells, pipelines, docks, barges, airports, and infrastructure. Unless mass protest changes the course of this fight, the possibility of a damaging oil spill will loom over Arctic wildlife and Inuit ways of life.

Should President Obama have allowed Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic?