In great news for America's Arctic, Shell Oil has announced that it is abandoning plans to drill the Chukchi Sea this year. The company had hoped to begin drilling this summer, a move that would have jeopardized the area's delicate natural balance and the subsistence communities dependent on it.
In the announcement, Shell cited a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that invalidated drilling leases in the Chukchi as one of the reasons for their decision. In response to a challenge from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the court ruled that the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management had analyzed "only the best case scenario for environmental harm," far underestimating the environmental risks drilling actually poses.
And while critics are already disrespectfully arguing that Shell's decision not to drill in the Arctic results from "judicial overreach," a panel of three distinguished federal judges found that Shell's lease and the Bureau violated environmental laws, and faulted the agency for downplaying the potential harm of oil development. On matters like these federal appellate judges are far more trustworthy than the oil industry-- a fact bolstered by the fact that this is the second time a court has ruled that leasing in the Chukchi Sea has been illegally approved.
Drilling in the Arctic is a dangerous and risky business--for companies' bottom lines, for the environment, and for our climate. Downplaying those risks does not make them go away, as Shell's disastrous experience in 2012 demonstrated. Among the difficulties encountered by the company was the grounding of its Kulluk drillship, more than $1 million in pollution fines, and the failure of its oil spill containment dome during testing.
It's clear that the Arctic Ocean is the last place we should be drilling for oil. The Arctic seas are home to a unique plethora of wildlife, including the entire US population of polar bears and serve as an important migration route for bowhead and beluga whales. They are also home to some of the most extreme and dangerous conditions on the planet, and to stores of carbon pollution that could dramatically alter our climate if released, negating positive steps to fight the climate crisis.
While Shell won't be drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer, the threat of drilling remains. The Obama administration needs to step in and do a full environmental assessment of current Arctic leases, not just accept false industry promises of safety and best case scenarios.
It's clear that we can't make the needed progress in fighting the climate crisis and drill in the Arctic Ocean. An effective climate strategy will also require the administration to cancel lease sales tentatively scheduled for 2016 and 2017. It's time for America to look beyond an 'all of the above' energy policy, and start taking advantage of available clean energy and smart transportation alternatives.
-- Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director