It’s been more than 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in history that devastated nearly 1,300 miles of pristine coastline in one of the last remaining wild places on earth.
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in Alaska, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil in an ecosystem that was once a rich, vital habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds.
Twenty-five years later, that ecosystem remains polluted by toxic contaminants. Last week, Royal Dutch Shell PLC received permission to bore two new exploratory wells in the Arctic waters. The Obama administration gave Shell two permits for drilling in the Chukchi Sea with conditions: Shell cannot drill into oil-bearing areas until spill response equipment is secured. This news served as a crushing blow to environmental advocates, who were hoping for a different response from the president.
Across the nation, people have rallied and protested to share their concern for President Obama’s decision, one that US author and journalist Bill McKibben called “catastrophic climate change denial.” On July 18, 2015, concerned citizens and environmental groups gathered outside the AT&T Park at Pier 40 in San Francisco in solidarity with “kayaktivists” in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, who have been expressing outrage against Shell and the lack of leadership exhibited by President Obama.
“This is going to be further exacerbate climate change. Science says you can’t be drilling for more fossil fuels, especially in the Arctic, if we want to stop runaway climate change,” said Mary Sweeters, Arctic Campaigner at Greenpeace. “We are joining folks across the country who are standing up to protest Shell plan’s to drill the Arctic. We are releasing a message for President Obama that he has the power to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic.”
“We have seen that deep sea drilling with the Deepwater Horizon rig has immense risks even in more hospitable areas. Now this is taking extreme drilling to a whole new level. There is immense risk involved in drilling in an icy, risky terrain and open ocean,” said Joy Firman, a member of the ocean team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to a report released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, there would be “a 75% chance of one or more large spills” occurring in the area over the next 77 years.
“The oil needs to stay in the ground, exactly where it is. If we drill this and burn the oil, we will seal the deal on climate change,” said Karen Topakian, board chair of Greenpeace Inc. After a quick training on kayaking in the San Francisco bay, nearly 30 kayaks set off along with a man in a polar bear suit holding a sign: “Polar bears and oil drilling don’t mix.”
“There is an incredible growing movement to stop this, people from Alaska to Florida, by people who are also directly affected by climate change. An oil spill will be a disaster for people who rely on a healthy ocean,” said Sweeters.