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Keep the Arctic Ocean and Other Special Waters off the Auction Block for Drilling

Frances Beinecke

Posted August 14, 2014

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Friday marks the deadline for comment on which ocean waters should be considered for oil and gas leasing. The Obama Administration is creating the next five-year leasing program, but don’t let the name fool you. This is not a short-term matter. Opening oceans to drilling could result in rigs that pump for 50 years and lead to decades of climate change pollution. It would also change the wild nature of these places forever. 

Now is the time to move into a more sustainable future, not dig deeper into dirty fuels and oil spills.

America can power our economy without sacrificing special ocean waters or intensifying climate change. Our cars go farther on a tank of gas than ever before, and our businesses and homes are embracing new breakthroughs in efficiency and renewable power. Our nation, meanwhile, is the largest oil and gas producer in the world.

The next five-year program should honor our obligation to future generations. The Obama Administration has an historic opportunity here to cement its legacy of ocean protection and climate action.

It can start by withdrawing the Arctic Ocean from offshore drilling. The Arctic is a crown jewel in America’s natural heritage. The waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are home to one-fifth of the world’s polar bears, as well as ice seals, endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, and other wonders of marine life. 


Shell's drill rig rain aground after fiasco-ridden attempt to drill in the Arctic in 2012.

But it is also a rugged and forbidding environment—covered in ice much of the year and located 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base—and there is no proven technology that can contain an oil spill in the Arctic. The Obama Administration should shield this pristine ocean from disaster by withdrawing it from leasing.

 It should also exclude Bristol Bay from the program. These rich waters are home to one of the world’s largest wild salmon runs—one that supports a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery and employs 14,000 people. As President Obama recognized in 2010 when he withdrew it from the current five-year program, Bristol Bay is simply “too special to drill.”

The next five-year program must also honor our nation’s several decades-long commitment to shielding the Atlantic and Pacific regions from offshore drilling—a commitment carried on by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Both oceans nurture extraordinary marine life—from underwater canyons and mountains teaming with biodiversity in the Atlantic to the migration route of 20,000 gray whales in the Pacific.

Both also create economic growth. Fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic, for instance, earned more than $488 million in 2012 for their catch. Taken together, the US oceans economy is nearly twice the size of the nation’s agricultural sector, and it creates almost four times as many jobs. The majority of these jobs depend on healthy waters. Industrial operations and oil spills put those jobs at risk. After the BP oil disaster, the Gulf of Mexico saw a 39 percent decline in commercial fish landings between 2009 and 2010—a loss of $62 million in dockside sales.

I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. I saw firsthand how devastating the spill was to marine life and coastal communities. I also learned about the industry’s disregard for safety and the government’s failure to monitor it. Yet in the aftermath of the largest spill in American history, Congress hasn’t passed a single law to rein in an industry known for risky operations and resistance to oversight.

US ocean waters belong to all Americans. They should not be handed over to oil and gas companies that contribute to climate change and threaten the fish, healthy waters, and businesses so many of us depend upon.

It’s time for the next leasing program to reflect smart ocean management and climate stewardship and not include the Arctic Ocean, Bristol Bay, the Atlantic and Pacific waters.


Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

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Paul pollardAug 14 2014 04:47 PM

Shed us of fossilized thinking. Invest in a now viability

Megan Crawford Aug 14 2014 04:49 PM

Please do not drill in the arctic or anywhere in the ocean! We need to keep our oceans safe!

BETTINA KIRBYAug 14 2014 05:01 PM

Please do not drill in the arctic or anywhere in the ocean! We need to keep our oceans safe!

Michael BerndtsonAug 14 2014 05:26 PM

Isn't Exxonmobil and Russia already doing this in the Arctic?

"Aug 9(Reuters) - U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil began drilling in Russia's Arctic on Saturday, despite Western sanctions imposed on its Russian partner Rosneft, and was hailed by Russia's president as an model of "cooperation".

After the fact deflective environmentalism, the preferred environmentalism of Exxon and natural resources offense companies.

denise roseAug 14 2014 05:54 PM

Big oil is not concerned with safety or the environment, we cannot allow them to potentially damage this fragile ecosystem with reckless and needless drilling.

Gaia QuayAug 14 2014 06:26 PM

I respectfully demand that the U. S. A. NOT open ANY new waters to fossil fuels exploration and/or drilling. It's not a question of when an environmental disaster will occur, but when. We eat out of the oceans, we get oxygen from them, we earn our livings on and under them, we enjoy the diversity of life in and around them. To destroy all that just to make a few obscenely rich people even richer is wrong-headed. The wrong priorities are in place. We should cherish the oceans and try to clean them up, not destroy them, and all that attaches to them. There is no Planet B.

Denisa OffordAug 15 2014 03:22 PM

Time has come to listen to the humans and not the oil industry. Americans are willing to cut back on our carbon. we need the U>S>A> to stand up for the people and ban drilling and fracking. Instead take taxes and invest in renewable energy.

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