Obama’s new offshore plan: don’t believe the hype

This week, the Obama administration released a draft of its next five-year plan for offshore drilling—opening up a previously off-limits area along the Southeastern coast, from Virginia down to Georgia, as well as offering many new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. And while it would protect some key areas north of Alaska from drilling, it would open other Arctic areas up. The plan designates 9.8 million acres of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas off-limits to oil-and-gas leasing, and asks Congress to set aside 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as "wilderness area," affording another level of protection. Daily Caller is outraged that the Alaskan waters are to be off-limits; Grist is outraged that the Southeastern waters are to be opened up; Bloomberg tries to play it objective. However, read the small print last line of the White House memo on the supposedly new polcy: "Nothing in this withdrawal affects the rights under existing leases in the withdrawn areas."

And, indeed, just as the White House made the announcement, Shell Oil made its own announcement—that is planning on spending $1 billion to drill exploratory oil wells in Chukchi Sea waters once it clears legal and permitting hurdles. Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said: "We are minded to drill this year in the Chukchi. We have retained a very significant capability to be ready for this year to go ahead."

The 2008 sale of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, including the ones Shell is now placing its hopes on, remains in limbo for the moment. The company began boring wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012. But that December, a Shell drilling ship, the Kulluk, ran into a fierce Gulf of Alaska storm while being towed back to the Lower 48—quite possibly to avoid Alaska taxes. The Kulluk broke lose from its tow lines and ran aground, triggering a dangerous evacuation of crew. It was later towed to China and scrapped.

An additional mishap took place that September as Shell tested a $400 million containment dome in Puget Sound. An electrical failure caused it to "breach like a whale," in the words of a federal inspector. It sank, and was "crumpled like a beer can" when recovered.

A federal court in January 2014 invalidated the environmental review process for the Chukchi Sea auction. The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in October filed a revised impact statement, boosting predictions of how much crude could be harvested under the Chukchi Sea leases. A final decision is expected by the end of March. Environmentalists point to Shell's shabby record in the region.

"Shell's reckless decision to return to the scene of 2012's Arctic crimes is stunning," said Annie Leonard, director of Greenpeace USA. "If President Obama wants to be a leader on climate change, there is only one choice to make: Do not approve Shell's Chukchi Sea drilling lease." (FuelFix, Seattle PI, Jan. 29)

Seattle PI is mostly concerned that the Chukchi exploitation will mean a massive retrofitting of the Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle to serve as staging area for Shell's Arctic exploration fleet, seen as a boon for local jobs (although for how long is not asked).

Areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas were opened by Obama in his last supposed compromise deal that first broached opening the Southeast coast in 2010. Then it was done in the name of weaning the country from imported oil. Yet they are going ahead with that plan even now that said dubious goal has been acheived. (Adjectives like "imported" completely miss the point: the problem is simply oil, thank you.)

The Atlantic coast has been under a longstanding moratorium on drilling since the 1980s. Obama's 2010 proposal to open it up was put off by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it is back. (Inside Climate News) (Note that BP has its own plans for Arctic drilling, the Deepwater Horizon disaster notwithstanding. In the Gulf itself, Obama also struck a deal with Mexico to open the "Western Gap" that was off limits to both countries under a bilateral treaty.)

In November 2011, the administration released a 2012-2017 lease plan that would have closed the majority of the Outer Continental Shelf to new drilling. (House Commiittee on Natural Resources, Nov. 8, 2011) When it actually went into effect in August 2012, it included fifteen potential lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Chukchi Sea and Beaufort seas. Right now, only a portion of the eastern Gulf of Mexico is under a leasing moratorium through June 2022. (Friends of the Earth, July 24, 2014)

The 2012 five-year plan was of course dissed as a "Great Leap Backward" (Obama as a Green Mao this time, rather than a Green Stalin) by the pro-industry Institute for Energy Research, which gripes: "American oil and gas leasing has been prohibited on most of the OCS since the 1982. Today, 97 percent of America's offshore OCS lands are not leased for energy exploration or production. The US is now the only developed nation in the World that restricts access to its offshore energy resources." 

But in fact, Congressional bans on East Coast drilling expired in 2008 (thanks to high oil prices), and Obama has thus far only kept it off-limits on a de facto basis by not offering leases there. (National Journal, US News & World Report, Jan. 27) A California state measure to ban offshore drilling (where some people still remember the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill) was defeated last year after heavy lobbying of Sacramento lawmakers by the industry. (LAT, Aug. 27, 2014)

Obama's new 2017-2022 plan was hailed as "a welcome thaw in the administration's drilling moratorium" by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who of course emphasized that  more is still needed,. (Bloomberg BNA, Jan. 28) But the Institute for Energy Research can't even grant that much, only griping that the ANWR wilderness designation is more of "Obama's Executive Overreach."

That's how the game is played. As long as the polar bears and caribou get aything—aything at all—the industry has still got to complain about "Executive Overreach." And the media play along as if this were just another legitimate POV. Once again—part of the pathology.

Media accounts of the new policy generally failed to note that the Chukchi Sea has also been in the news recently due to the radical decline in sea ice there, almost certainly as a result of climate change. A reality not exactly unrelated to the issue at hand…

  1. Obama administration approves Shell’s Chukchi Sea offshore plan

    The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) on May 11 granted Shell approval to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean. Once the company obtains permits from various state and federal agencies, it will be clear to drill up to six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles from Wainwright, Alaska. The BOEM approval comes two years after Shell halted operations in the Arctic in the wake of a 2012 drilling season riddled with violations. Shell hopes to start drilling by summer. (Popular Science)

  2. Climate change ‘threat to global security.’ Really, Obama?

    Obama told graduates at the US Coast Guard Academy: "I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act—and we need to act now." (The Hill, May 20)

    By opening the Arctic Ocean to Shell?

  3. US judge finds Greenpeace protesters in contempt

    A federal judge in Alaska ruled July 30 that Greenpeace USA will be fined $2,500 for every hour that protesters block a Royal Dutch Shell vessel from leaving Portland. The protesters have been suspending themselves from a bridge and kayakers have been blocking the river to try to prevent a vessel leaving for oil drilling in the Arctic from passing. US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason warned that the fine would jump to $5,000 an hour on July 31, $7,500 an hour on Aug. 1, and $10,000 an hour on Aug. 2. (Jurist)

  4. Federal government approves off-shore Arctic drilling

    The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Aug. 17 announced that it has approved a permit for Royal Dutch Shell to drill off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean. Shell was approved because it acquired a piece of equipment designed to shut an oil well in the event of an emergency loss of control. Shell is prohibited from maintaining active drill rigs less than 15 miles apart to avoid negatively affecting the walrus population in the Arctic. The drilling will take place at the Burger Prospect area, in 140 feet of water approximately 70 miles northwest of Wainwright. The US Department of the Interior has also released proposed regulations to ensure the safety of future drilling activities in the US Arctic Continental Shelf. (Jurist, Aug. 18)

  5. Shell abandons Arctic oil drilling project

    Shell announced Sept. 28 that it is abandoning the controversial $7 billion, seven-year quest for crude oil under Arctic waters after an exploratory well failed to find significant amounts of oil and gas.But activists claimed the withdrawal as a victory. Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said: “Big oil has sustained an unmitigated defeat. They had a budget of billions, we had a movement of millions. For three years we faced them down, and the people won. (Revolution News)