As a part of the Republican tax overhaul bill, Congress voted Dec. 20 to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural gas drilling, after more than four decades of contestation on the matter. The House voted 224-201 to pass the bill, mostly along party lines. This finalizes the legislation, as the Senate version was passed by a 51-48 party-line vote earlier in the day. Once President Trump signs the law, the oil industry will have finally achieved a long-sought goal. "We're going to start drilling in ANWR, one of the largest oil reserves in the world, that for 40 years this country was unable to touch. That by itself would be a massive bill," Trump boasted. "They've been trying to get that, the Bushes, everybody. All the way back to Reagan, Reagan tried to get it. Bush tried to get it. Everybody tried to get it. They couldn't get it passed. That just happens to be here."
Hurricane Maria's destruction on Puerto Rico could spawn one of the largest mass migration events in the United States' recent history, as tens of thousands of storm victims flee the island territory to rebuild their lives on the mainland. Some 97% of the island's 3.4 million residents are still without power. About half of the island's residents do not have running water. And no one knows when things will be fixed. Scientific American warns that the displaced islanders, thousands now awaiting flights from San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín airport, might be among the United States' newest "climate refugees," a demographic that includes former residents of the Louisiana coast and of shrinking islands in Alaska's Bering Strait.
San Francisco on Sept. 20 filed a lawsuit against five fossil fuel companies due to expected expenses the city will incur from global warming. The companies named in the suit are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell—chosen because they are "the largest investor-owned fossil fuel corporations in the world as measured by their historic production of fossil fuels." The suit claims the companies knew of the effects of fossil fuels on global warming since the late 1970s or early '80s, but nonetheless "engaged in large-scale, sophisticated advertising and public relations campaigns to promote pervasive fossil fuel usage." The suit seeks an order that the defendants fund an abatement program for the building of seawalls to protect San Francisco from rising sea levels.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on May 11 signed the Fairbanks Declaration, affirming the neeed for protection of the Arctic's climate. The move, at the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting held in the Alaska city, came after much speculation that the US would decline to sign, or even use the occasion to announce its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The Fairbanks Declaration notes the importance of the Paris Agreement, while stating that "the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average." The US getting on board was apparently the fruit of behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure. "I think we were able to push the US back as much as possible," Rene Solderman, Finland's senior adviser on Arctic affairs, told reporters after the ministerial session.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28 to lift restrictions placed on offshore oil drilling by the previous administration. According to a statement, about 94% of the US Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was either off-limits to or not considered for oil and gas exploration and development under previous rules. Trump blamed federal regulations for high unemployment in the state of Alaska, where oil and gas are a significant part of the economy, and said lifting restrictions would create thousands of jobs. Opponents, including US Congressman Charlie Christ (D-FL), criticized the move, citing environmental risks posed by drilling, especially naming the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill.
This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
This year has seen the rise and fall of Shell Oil's plan to begin offshore Arcitc drilling in Alaskan waters. Now, the Interior Department has announced the cancellation of two pending Arctic offshore lease sales that were scheduled under the current five-year offshore leasing program for 2012-2017—Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 237 and Beaufort Sea Lease Sale 242. Additionally, the Department announced denial or requests from Shell and Statoil for extensions that would have allowed for retention of their leases beyond their primary terms of 10 years. DoI stated that "the companies did not demonstrate a reasonable schedule of work for exploration and development under the leases, a regulatory requirement necessary for BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] to grant a suspension." But in justifying the decisions, Secretary Sally Jewell openly stated that in light of "current market conditions, it does not make sense to prepare for lease sales in the Arctic in the next year and a half." (Alaska Native News, Oct. 16) This amounts to a virtual admission that the idea here is "banking" the oil under the sea, until currently depressed prices start to rise again.
Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Aug. 4 announced they have submitted a revised bid claiming over 350 nautical miles of Arctic sea shelf to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The country's previous bids in 2001 were rejected for lack of evidence. Under Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (PDF), Russia now argues it has a right to extend its control up to 350 nautical miles. Canada, Norway, Denmark and the US are also attempting to claim territories in the Arctic. The sea shelf is believed to hold a large amount of oil and gas which Russia estimates could be worth up to $30 trillion.