How Obama’s Two-Year Halt on Arctic Drilling Still Leaves the Waters in Jeopardy

The White House’s announcement will keep drill rigs out of the Arctic for the next two years.
Environmental activists protest against Shell in May 2015. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)
Oct 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Polar bears, walruses, and other marine life may have to traverse around kayaks and ships while swimming through Arctic waters, but thanks to an announcement made by the Obama administration on Friday, they will no longer have to dodge one other unnatural inhabitant: oil rigs.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the cancellation of all remaining oil and gas leases in the Arctic Ocean through 2017. That means 55 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and 65 million acres in the Beaufort Sea are closed for business. The department also rejected requests from Shell and Statoil, a Norwegian oil and gas company, to extend their leases by five years.

Proponents of offshore drilling say tapping into oil from the Arctic is vital to securing energy security for the U.S. and to support Alaska’s economy, but environmental groups championed the decision.

“The Obama administration finally made the right choice for the Arctic and our climate future,” Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said in a press release. “To avoid climate catastrophe, Arctic oil and gas are unburnable and must remain in the ground.”

Although putting the brakes on Arctic drilling may be a win for the environment, the administration’s decision seems to be financially motivated. The Interior Department’s announcement cites “market conditions and low industry interest” as its reasons for suspending exploration.

The decision comes less than a month after Shell abandoned its plans to drill off the Alaskan coast—after spending $7 billion and almost nine years looking for fossil fuels—owing to disappointing results from an exploratory well and dropping oil prices. While seven other companies held rights to drill in the area, only Shell had an active project.

“I think it is fair to assume that if oil prices were high and there were several competitive bids on the lease areas, the administration would have held the lease sales,” Knodel wrote in an email to TakePart.

But just because it makes economic sense doesn’t mean environmental and wildlife groups don’t have cause to celebrate. Research has also shown that there is no environmentally friendly way to drill for oil in the Arctic and that it must stay buried to stop global temperatures from rising. Drilling rigs also disrupt the habitats of animals that are already suffering because of melting sea ice, as Arctic waters are warming at a rate twice that of southern waters.

But Alaskan waters and their inhabitants may not be safe for long. The Interior Department has proposed two oil lease sales in the Arctic for the 2017–22 offshore drilling program.