Twenty-Five Years After Exxon Valdez, Kayakers Take to the Sea to Defend the Arctic

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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.

Concerned citizens and environmental groups circled outside a major San Francisco landmark, the AT&T Park, to protest President Obama's decision to approve Arctic drilling in the formidable Chukchi Sea. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)Concerned citizens and environmental groups circled outside a major San Francisco landmark, the AT&T Park, to protest President Obama’s decision to approve Arctic drilling in the formidable Chukchi Sea. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

As the Arctic ice is melting, Shell is seeing this as an opportunity to go and drill for oil, furthering the consequences of climate change (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)“As the Arctic ice is melting, Shell is seeing this as an opportunity to go and drill for oil, furthering the consequences of climate change,” said Mary Sweeters, Arctic Campaigner for Greenpeace. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

Topakian, Board Chair of Greenpeace Inc.(Photo: Rucha Chitnis)“Shell can’t be trusted. They have had accidents in the past, and they don’t have the capacity to clean up. It’s not a question of if, but when. Nobody should be drilling for oil in the Arctic,” said Karen Topakian, board chair of Greenpeace Inc. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

Thomas Parker, a spoken word poet. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)“Species are dying and what have we become? We must help our mother in need because the earth gave birth to you and me,” said Thomas Parker, a spoken word poet. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

People set off in nearly 30 kayaks. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)People set off in nearly 30 kayaks. They were cheered on by supporters, who held signs, such as, “Solidarity With Land Defenders Everywhere.” (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

The kayaktivists paddled under the iconic Bay Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks like the financial district. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)The kayaktivists paddled under the iconic Bay Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks like the financial district. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

(Photo: Rucha Chitnis)Many of the groups echoed deep concerns about drilling in the Arctic and cited the report issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that there would be a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills occurring in the area over the next 77 years. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

(Photo: Rucha Chitnis)“We have means to rise above with renewable dreams and fists in air is the theme, because we shall overcome,” said Parker in his spoken word piece. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

(Photo: Rucha Chitnis)“This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn’t real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children,” noted Bill McKibben in an op-ed in the New York Times. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)

(Photo: Rucha Chitnis)Former vice president of the United States and an ardent climate champion, Al Gore, called drilling in the Arctic an “insane” proposition. “We are in a race against time, because we are still putting 110 million tons every day of global warming pollution in the atmosphere as though it is an open sewer.” (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)