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Bianca Jagger | President Obama’s Gravest Error: Trusting Shell to Drill in the Arctic

President Obama’s approval of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling has tarnished his environmental legacy.

According to the IPCC, climate change will increase droughts and floods in the United States, diminishing water quality, and increasing animal and plant mortality. Risk of wildfires has already increased. There were near-record numbers of fires in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, an area the size of the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined was set ablaze. The White House has reported that climate and weather disasters cost the country more than $100 billion in 2012 alone. Air pollution, extreme weather events, and diseases carried by food, water and insects all bring health risks. There is far more to come. Florida will see further rises in sea level. California will experience further droughts.

The president is right to say, “This is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore. This is a problem now. It has serious implications for the way we live right now.” Obama has now seen the impacts of climate change during his visit to the Arctic. He must know that to prevent catastrophic climate change 88 percent of the world’s known coal reserves, 52 percent of gas and 35 percent of oil must be left untouched. Now is the time for him to choose his side and rescind Shell’s permit to drill for oil in the Arctic.

According to the Earth League, which includes Lord Nicholas Stern; Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pope Francis; and US economist Jeffrey Sachs, three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if average global warming is not to breach a rise of 2 degrees Celsius. In their statement, released on April 22, 2015, to coincide with Earth Day, they warn that failure to leave oil in the soil and coal in the ground would bring a 1 in 10 risk of going beyond 6 degrees Celsius by 2100, a “high risk of disaster” that would be “equivalent of tolerating about 10,000 airplane crashes every day worldwide.”

When he was elected, President Obama promised to deliver a “new era of responsibility” and to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Millions of people around the world, including me, believed in him and his vision.

At the UNFCCC climate summit in Copenhagen, COP15, President Obama proved to be a galvanizing force. Attended by 120 heads of state, COP15 was the largest gathering of its kind, apart from the annual UN General Assembly in New York. The conference was the focus of unprecedented public and media attention but the president’s leadership failed and the Copenhagen Accord that resulted was a shameful compromise. Obama missed that opportunity to set the world on the right path to avoiding catastrophic climate change. At this point he was a president in his first year in office, and very aware that Congress could override his pledges. Now he only has months left.

When COP21 takes place in Paris at the end of 2015, six years will have passed since Copenhagen. COP21 is Obama’s last chance to define his environmental legacy.

Obama’s Environmental Legacy

To date, what is President Obama’s environmental legacy? He has implemented policies that reduce fossil fuel demand: a meaningful bilateral agreement with China to cut emissions in which the US agreed to cut carbon emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, relative to 2005 levels; efficiency standards for road vehicles and aircraft; and carbon dioxide regulations for new power plants. However, he has failed to tackle the supply side of fossil fuel, doing little to halt the rampant determination of coal, oil and natural gas corporations to extract all the resources they can. In July 2014, Obama’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opened up the Eastern seaboard, from Florida to Delaware, for oil and natural gas exploration. The White House boasts that it has opened up 59 million acres for oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and has increased leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land.

President Obama did veto the Keystone XL pipeline but now he has given license to Shell to drill in the Arctic. This will be the mortal sin of his administration.

In his acceptance speech in 2008, President Obama pledged to make the “planet in peril” one of his top three priorities. In his State of the Union address in 2014, Obama said, “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” But has President Obama really done all he could?

On August 3, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, an unprecedented initiative that promises to revolutionize power plant emissions, the United States’ largest source of pollution. The plan is an ambitious pledge to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the nation’s power plants by 32 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.

President Obama introduced the plan as “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.” The plan was well received: Lord Nicholas Stern, chair of the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, called the plan “a very important announcement by President Obama which will reinforce the credibility of the commitment by the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalised … It shows the determination of the world’s richest country to maintain better economic growth while also cutting greenhouse gas pollution.”

The New York Times editorial board said the plan was “unquestionably the most important step the administration has taken in the fight against climate change” and Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, went further, calling it “the most significant single action any president has ever taken.”

President Obama recognized that “[climate change] is one of those rare issues – because of its magnitude, because of its scope – that if we don’t get it right we may not be able to reverse it and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently. There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.” Indeed there is, and all the scientific evidence indicates that we are nearly past the point of no return.

In announcing the Clean Power Plan, Obama quoted Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” On hearing Obama introduce the plan, my hopes for COP21 were lifted. Unfortunately, my optimism didn’t last long – the plan sets achievable goals and contains several concessions.

Power plants produce a third of the United States’ total domestic carbon dioxide emissions. Under Obama’s plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives each state a goal for cutting power plant emissions. States decide for themselves how to achieve this target. They can switch from coal to natural gas or nuclear, expand their generation of renewable energy or increase energy efficiency. All states must submit their plans by 2016 to 2018, start making reductions by 2022 at the latest and continue reducing emissions through to 2030.

This all sounds very promising. However, under the original version of the Clean Power Plan, states did not have this two-year grace period before they had to start reducing emissions. The two-year grace period would allow them to burn fossil fuels for two more years. During this time, carbon dioxide concentrations will continue to rise and the impacts of climate change will continue to be felt across the world. This concession is not just unnecessary but reckless. As Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, confirms, many “states are already on track to cut their emissions through actions they’ve put in place, including state renewable energy and energy efficiency standards and coal plant retirements.”

The plan is ambitious by the standards of the United States’ climate commitments to date but conservative in terms of the carbon dioxide reduction targets in line with scientific estimates required to avoid catastrophic climate change. Coal – the dirty industry most impacted by the president’s plan – is already a steadily declining contributor to the country’s electricity production. According to Politico, increased electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources and energy efficiency initiatives mean the United States has already met the halfway point of the goal set by the Clean Power Plan. The plan could have gone much further.

One of the most positive aspects of the plan is its promise of 30 percent more renewable energy generation by 2030. But this figure is a testament to the expansion of the renewable energy market, which is reliant on the federal production tax credit (PTC) incentive. Favorable conditions for solar and wind energy have enabled the pledges of the draft plan to be increased. According to Rob Gramlich of the American Wind Energy Association, the current boom requires the PTC subsidy. The draft plan, formulated prior to the boom, estimated that renewable energy would only make up 22 percent of the market by 2030.

President Obama said the Clean Power Plan is “the biggest, most important step the USA has ever taken to combat climate change.” He is right, but more, much more, is required if we are to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius.

To put the plan’s goals in perspective, last week California passed legislation that will see the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. Tim O’Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate.”

In response to the president’s announcement of the plan, Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said, “Obama’s climate initiative is politically significant, but falls way short of what scientists say is required to tackle catastrophic climate change. In the face of huge US vested interests that oppose any measures on climate change, the President’s plan at least pushes the issue up the agenda…. [T]hese measures are just a drop in the ocean, when a sea change in energy policy is what’s desperately required. It would have been more significant if the President said no to drilling in the Arctic, and stopped his support for new fossil fuels such as fracking and tar sands.” spokesman Jamie Henn agreed that more is required. Reducing the emissions of power plants is not enough by itself: “Taking on King Coal is the easy part … It’s standing up to Big Oil that will require real courage. That’s why decisions on things like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and Arctic drilling are so important – they’re the true test of climate leadership for this and any future presidents.”

Hillary Clinton has promised – if elected as president – to produce 33 percent of the United States’ electricity from renewable sources by 2027. This is an additional 7 percent to what Obama has promised by 2030. Clinton has also vowed to install half a billion solar panels by 2020. This is seven times the number of panels currently being built and would produce enough energy to power every home in the United States within 10 years. Clinton said, “I personally believe climate change is a challenge of such magnitude and urgency that we need a president who will set ambitious goals.”

Indeed, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and some of his environmental policies have set ambitious goals, and his expedition to the Arctic gave us reasons for optimism. Unfortunately, his decision to give the green light to Shell to drill in the Arctic has irreparably undermined his environmental legacy. I had hoped for more from President Obama.

President Obama in Kenai Fjords National Park with Exit Glacier in the background.President Obama in Kenai Fjords National Park with Exit Glacier in the background. (Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


We all know it is not the sole responsibility of President Obama and the United States to single-handedly prevent catastrophic climate change, but the international community is in dire need of leadership if member states are to achieve a meaningful agreement in Paris.

Soon after President Obama took office, in a 2009 speech on climate change, he said, “Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it – boldly, swiftly, and together – we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.”

COP21 is the president’s last chance to put his climate change legacy back on track.

We are all hoping that when COP21 takes place in Paris in December, President Obama and world leaders will bring substantial commitments to the table, to achieve a global, binding climate agreement to drastically reduce emissions and slow the perilous warming of the planet. If they fail, COP21 will be an appalling abdication of responsibility.

This piece was originally posted at The Huffington Post.

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