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Keep It in the Ground, Obama

On January 17 the New York Times reported that, to appease environmentalists, the Obama administration would “ban drilling in portions of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.” But in return, Republicans and the oil and gas industry got federal approval to drill in a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean, a move that I believe risks another BP-type disaster.

Drilling in the Atlantic is no small bone to calm the savage dogs on the right. Department of the Interior officials are quick to reassure us that safeguards will be in place before exploration begins and that the leased area is 50 miles from shore. But we’ve been down that road too many times to feel reassured. Recall, for one thing, that the Deepwater Horizon rig was 41 miles from Louisiana’s shore. For another, since the BP spill, no new safety regulations have been enacted by Congress, and in the current climate, they will have to come from the administration itself. Who will be president when the time comes?

Now the administration has reversed its Arctic Ocean decision and granted drilling rights there to Shell Oil. The decision is conditional on Shell being granted additional permits, which of course it will get. As happens every time offshore drilling is allowed, the administration claims that resource extraction and safety standards can be effectively monitored, and the energy company claims it will adhere to the highest level of care for the environment. Such nonsense: common sense and past experience tell us that drilling in the frigid Arctic is dangerous, a spill is only a matter of time, and the cleanup will be far more complicated than in the Gulf of Mexico. Where Shell intends to drill, for example, is 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, damage to the many rare, threatened, and endangered species is much more likely, and all pollution in icy waters lasts many times longer than in a warm sea.

Even some oil company executives have expressed surprise that Shell would undertake this venture, especially when it folded operations in 2012 after its oil drilling rig went aground.

From a profit-and-loss standpoint, moreover, drilling doesn’t make sense given the low price of energy these days. But Shell is clearly banking on a carbon-filled future and its massive rig has left Seattle for the Arctic, despite mass nonviolent civil resistance from hundreds of kayakers trying desperately to draw our attention to this poor practice.

The central issue is a different risk: climate change. More drilling means more carbon. As the veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben writes, opening the Arctic to drilling is like allowing cigarette machines in cancer wards. Carbon must be kept in the ground; the alternative is out-of-control global warming.

President Obama wants to leave a legacy of good planetary stewardship. But his notion of “balancing” drilling and protection is only further unbalancing the environment. It may be good politics, but it’s bad stewardship.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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