The Obama administration has granted Royal Dutch Shell final approval to resume drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean for the first time since 2012 despite widespread protests from environmental groups. Shell first obtained drilling permits in the Arctic during the George W. Bush administration, but drilling stopped in 2012 after a series of mishaps. The Interior Department’s decision comes just weeks after a protest in Portland, Oregon, temporarily blocked an Arctic-bound rig of Shell’s from leaving the city after a group of activists from Greenpeace dangled off a bridge, blocking the ship’s movement while kayaktivists took to the water below. A coalition of environmental groups have pushed the Obama administration to say no to Arctic drilling, citing the dangers of a possible oil spill in the pristine region and the impact new oil extraction would have on the climate. The Interior Department approved the Arctic drilling ahead of President Obama’s upcoming trip to the Arctic later this month. He mentioned the trip during his recent speech unveiling plan to slash carbon emissions from U.S. power plants.
AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has granted Royal Dutch Shell final approval to resume drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean for the first time since 2012 despite widespread protests from environmental groups. Shell first obtained drilling permits in the Arctic during the George W. Bush administration, but drilling stopped in 2012 after a series of mishaps.
The Interior Department’s decision comes just weeks after a protest in Portland, Oregon, temporarily blocked an Arctic-bound rig of Shell’s from leaving the city after a group of activists from Greenpeace dangled off a bridge, blocking the ship’s movement while “kayaktivists” took to the water below. A coalition of environmental groups have pushed the Obama administration to say no to Arctic drilling, citing the dangers of a possible oil spill in the pristine region and the impact new oil extraction would have on the climate.
The Interior Department approved the Arctic drilling ahead of President Obama’s upcoming trip to the Arctic later this month. He mentioned the trip during his recent speech unveiling his plan to slash carbon emissions from U.S. power plants.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ll also be the first American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic, where our fellow Americans have already seen their communities devastated by melting ice and rising oceans, the impact on marine life. We’re going to talk about what the world needs to do together to prevent the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Athan Manuel, director of Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program.
Athan, welcome to Democracy Now!
ATHAN MANUEL: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the Obama administration has given approval for drilling in the Arctic yesterday. Can you talk about the Sierra Club’s response?
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, we’re very disappointed. As you said in the lead-in, this president really gets it on climate change, talks about climate change all the time and talks about it in his trip to Alaska. This is just a very bad decision. You know, Shell is not a very clean company. They have a history of mishaps and problems with drilling anywhere in the United States—anywhere in the world, but especially in an area as challenging as the Arctic Ocean. And as you mentioned, this is not going to make our climate any better. If we’re serious about fighting climate change—and this president seems like he is serious about fighting it—we know we need to keep dirty fuels, like oil and gas and coal, underground where they belong. And so, this is really a disappointing decision, one we can’t figure out, one that’s not consistent with what this president has done in other realms around climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what this drilling could mean and when exactly it will take place? There’s a very small window, is that right?
ATHAN MANUEL: Yeah, it’s a very short drilling season. And this is just a really cynical issue, because the only reason that Shell can even consider drilling in the Arctic Ocean is climate change, you know, now that it’s getting warmer in the Arctic, the ice is breaking up, and in the summer the ice breaks up enough where companies can operate boats and put up temporary drilling rigs. So it’s a very—but still, it’s a very short drilling season. They have permits to drill in August, September. They have to end in August, when it starts getting colder again, cold enough to freeze up the entire ocean. So it’s a very narrow window that they have to operate in.
But the problems are that it’s just a very dangerous place to drill. The oil is—there’s still ice that tumbles through the water. There’s no onshore facilities where you can stage cleanup equipment, unlike the Gulf of Mexico where there’s lots of ports, lots of people, lots of boats. None of that exists on the North Slope of Alaska. There are no ports on the North Slope of Alaska. So it’s just not—there’s no infrastructure to clean up a spill. But if a spill happens, there’s almost no way to clean it up. You see that anywhere in the world, but you’ll see that even worse in the Arctic Ocean.
AMY GOODMAN: Why has the Obama administration given approval to Shell?
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, we can’t really figure that out. There’s no logical reason why this kind of president, one who cares about climate, one who inherited this problem from a Republican president, wouldn’t step in and say this is a terrible idea. It’s bad for our climate. It’s bad for the ecosystem there. It’s bad for marine mammals and fish. It’s bad for Alaskan natives who depend on the Arctic Ocean for their way of life and for subsistence. So it’s really a head scratcher. We can’t understand it. It’s completely inconsistent with what he’s done recently, when you look at the clean power plant rule, when you look—you talked about the methane regs that are going to come out today. This president has clearly attacked climate change and has made it a signature issue of his. And this decision to just not reconsider Shell’s drilling record and not consider how this drilling would impact the climate negatively really makes no sense. We can’t figure it out.
AMY GOODMAN: Athan—
ATHAN MANUEL: We’re not going to stop pushing him, though, on this issue, and it’s going to be a priority for Sierra Club and Greenpeace and other groups going forward.
AMY GOODMAN: The Interior Department, not Greenpeace of Sierra Club, said there is a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills since Shell begins drilling.
ATHAN MANUEL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the agency that regulates drilling says there’s going to be a spill if they allow drilling there. So, no, none of it adds up. It makes absolutely no sense. This is really a huge mistake by the Obama administration to allow Shell to operate there, knowing what we know about the risks of operating in an area like the Arctic Ocean, which is very dangerous and very remote.
AMY GOODMAN: So what’s the next step for the Sierra Club, Athan?
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, the one thing is, this is just a first step in Shell developing this field. You know, they probably want to put—do two more rounds, two more years of exploratory drilling, before they even consider putting a permanent platform there. So we’re going to fight them every step of the way. I think you’re going to continue to see more protests like you saw in Portland, but see those all around the country, all around the world, really, as this issue gets more and more high-profile. And we’re going to continue to fight them in the courts using laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. This is a long road that we’re going to continue to fight every step of the way to prohibit Shell from putting up any production platforms that industrializes the Arctic Ocean.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the positions of the presidential candidates?
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, we have a—we’re in luck there that, at least on the Democratic side, every candidate running for office, from Senator Clinton to—I mean, Secretary Clinton to Senator Sanders to Governor O’Malley to Governor Chafee, all those folks oppose drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and many of them have all voted to oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge when they were in the Senate. So, hopefully, the next president will overturn this decision and put a stop to this very, very bad idea that would really damage one of the last pristine places left in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of President Obama’s trip?
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, it kind of—well, you know, it’s going to be all about climate. And obviously in Paris, he’s going to go there touting issues like the clean power plant rule and the fact that we’re moving—that we’re reducing emissions here in the United States. But I think this issue—he would have had a stronger position going to Paris, if he had said, “We are not going to drill in the Arctic Ocean.” I mean, one of the problems we’re seeing is that other countries—Russia, Canada, Norway, Great Britain—they want to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean also. And we were hoping that the U.S. would lead the world in showing the world how we’re supposed to respect our Arctic, not drill for oil there, and keep this area off-limits from any kind of drilling.
AMY GOODMAN: I actually mean the trip he’s going to take to the Arctic—
ATHAN MANUEL: Oh, the Arctic, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —where he’ll be the first U.S. president who will be doing this.
ATHAN MANUEL: Well, I think he’s going to be confronted by a lot of questions about—if you really care about climate and care about protecting Alaska’s North Slope from the impacts of climate change, why are you allowing drilling in the Arctic Ocean? The Alaska natives who live in that area above the Arctic Circle understand the impacts of climate change on their villages and on their way of life. And most of those folks oppose drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for all of the reasons we do, as well. So, he’s going to be confronted with that contradiction when he goes up there at the end of this month.
AMY GOODMAN: Athan Manuel, I want to thank you for being with us.
ATHAN MANUEL: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this issue, and we will be in Paris at the end of the year for the COP summit, the Conference of Parties, the binding meeting that will take place of all—many of the countries, most of the countries, of the world, the U.N. climate summit.
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