President’s Plan to Protect Arctic Ocean Won’t Halt Oil Drilling
Leah Donahey and Subhankar Banerjee say Obama has taken an important step by announcing new protections for the Arctic Ocean, but it does not block Shell from drilling there
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
New satellite data analysis using eight satellite images by scientists from the U.K. Center for Polar Observation and Modeling at the University of Leeds in the U.K. has revealed that Arctic cap is rapidly melting at an unprecedented rate. Further, the world meteorological organization brought together the findings of three major climate research units–the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.K.’s Met Office, all of which says 2014 was the hottest year on record.
Last week, President Obama also announced that his Department of Interior would push for the largest protected wildlife refuge, consisting of 12.28 million acres, since Congress passed the first wilderness act 50 years ago. Let’s take a look at what President Obama had to say.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: My Department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure that we’re protecting the refuge and that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation. And I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further, designating it as a wilderness, so we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations.
PERIES: In critiquing President Obama’s statement, our next two guests says that the, as always, devil is in the detail and that Obama’s announcement is not all what it’s cut out to be.
Joining us from Port Townsend, Washington, is Subhankar Banerjee. Subhankar is an environmental and humanities scholar and activist. He founded ClimateStorytellers.org. And he’s the editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.
And we’re also joined by Leah Donahey. She is a senior campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League’s Arctic Ocean’s campaign to protect the ocean from oil and gas development.
Thank you both for joining us.
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE, EDITOR, ARCTIC VOICES: RESISTANCE AT THE TIPPING POINT: Thank you [crosstalk]
LEAH DONAHEY, SENIOR CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE: Thank you for having us.
PERIES: So, Subhankar, let me start with you. You said that President Obama’s announcement last week about the preserving of the Alaskan wilderness, where it is all–the devil’s in the detail, you said. What did you mean by that?
BANERJEE: Okay. So after kind of pursuing a rather aggressive pro-drilling policy about the Arctic Ocean, the president is finally showing signs of conservation sentiment. So this is only to be welcomed.
But as you said, the devil is in the detail, and we need to look at it a little bit carefully. So the White House announcement says that the president protects marine wilderness. What he has done is 9.8 million acres, including the biologically significant Hanna Shoal, is to be kept off-limits from future oil and gas leases. But the current leases does not apply.
So let me just give you a little bit of background about how the president came to this decision. What is Hanna Shoal, and what does it mean with regard to Shell’s Arctic drilling? In 2012, in August 2012, the very month that the president had approved Shell to go drill in the Beaufort and Chuckchi Sea is, that same month, he also sent a team of scientists to study Hanna Shoal. Hanna Shoal had been studied before sporadically, but this was the first comprehensive study of Hanna Shoal, which is, by the way, in the Chuckchi Sea.
So anyway, the scientists went up there. They there what’s called a baseline–or they’re now calling in benchmark studies, in 2012 and 2013. And what they found is that Hanna Shoal could be considered like what you would call a biological heart or one of the biological hearts of the Chuckchi Sea. Its productivity, biological productivity, is astounding. Whales and walruses and numerous other species feed there. It’s truly a national ecological treasure. That, combined with the fact–and those studies were done in 2012, 2013–that, combined with the fact that the walrus population in the Chuckchi Sea is really struggling because of climate change–six out of the last eight years, the walruses have suffered what is called this haul-out, where tens of thousands of walruses come ashore, crush each other, kill their calves sometimes, and 35,000 walruses came ashore last year. And this has happen six out of the last eight years. Those two facts clearly, and all of the things that the environmental community and the traditional [incompr.] community have been saying: leave the president take this decision. So that’s good.
Now, the problem is that if you look at the Hanna Shoal walrus area, habitat, which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management actually published a map last year, it overlaps with some of the oil and gas lease blocks that already the oil companies hold, including Shell, particularly in the northeastern section.
More importantly, in 2012, when the scientific team went up there, the senior scientists–one of the senior scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was on that team–made a comment that anything that gets released into the water from drill sites will end up, likely end up in Hanna Shoal.
So the problem is that if the president wants to really protect Hanna Shoal, at the same time, he cannot allow Shell to go drill in the current lease blocks that they’re holding in the Chuckchi Sea. It would be not only a contradiction, but also what I would call a betrayal. And Leah can tell you more about the lease-sale legal battle that’s been going on for several years.
But I will just say one last thing, that if the American public truly knew about the ecological richness of America’s Arctic seas, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, they will not allow any drilling in those waters.
PERIES: Leah, let’s go to you on that. You have worked on conservation policy, and you’ve been very involved in the legal battle against Shell drilling in the Arctic. So bring us up to date on what’s really going on there.
DONAHEY: Yeah, I’d be very happy to. I wanted to start off by saying that what President Obama did last week was such an important step for America’s Arctic, not just offshore, but also on shore. He gave the first step to really seeing protection of the coastal plain in the Arctic refuge, a battle that most people in the environmental community and locals have been fighting for for over three decades now. So he took a very important role by protecting areas.
And withdrawing areas from leasing is a very important first place to do this. And while it’s for future leasing, we hope it’ll be assigned for where the Obama administration is going to go to protect areas offshore, not just be in favor of drilling offshore.
So, as Subhankar had mentioned, for the last decade, folks in the environmental community and several government tribal organizations in Alaska have been fighting a lease sale known as lease sale 193 in the Chuckchi Sea. These are leases that were sold under the Bush administration, and they’ve been contested and litigated twice. They’ve been–they went up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S. And in the latest round, which–there was a decision in January of last year–the court deemed the lease sale illegal and required the government to do a new reanalysis of that lease sale.
Shell is only trying to drill in the Chuckchi Sea in 2015. Last year they submitted exploration plans that is focused in the Chukchi Sea, very close to the areas that Subhankar was talking about in Hanna Shoal.
We think that Shell’s plans–and when I say we, I mean Alaska Wilderness League–feels those plans are quite aggressive. And based on what we saw in 2012 when Shell tried to drill, we do not think that the administration should be allowing Shell to go up there this year.
Currently, lease sale 193, they had a public comment period and released an updated supplemental environmental impact statement. That supplemental found that if the leases were developed, there is a 75 percent chance that a large oil spill could take place in that area. So while these protections are a really important first step, if we do, if the government does authorize Shell to drill at the same time, we could see quite–you know, there are no boundaries for oil spills. So we could see some pretty horrific effects if a spill were to happen in this area.
PERIES: So these conflicting plans that the administration seems to have, on one hand, you know, allow Exxon and other drilling companies to go up there, and then, on the other hand, protecting, trying to portray that they want to protect that area, what does all of this mean, these contradictory points of view? Leah, let me go to you.
DONAHEY: I would say the administration has had a policy known as their all-of-the-above policy. They’ve been in favor of drilling offshore really since the beginning of the administration. They’ve upheld the Bush administration decisions, and even authorized drilling and held future lease sales on their own.
I would say that the protection is based on many years of science, many years of hearing from local communities. In fact, last year, the administration received 21 resolutions from tribes across the state of Alaska asking for these withdrawals to move forward. So there’s a lot of local support. And I think, while the past has seen a push for drilling, we’re hoping that the moves that the president made last week, by making a bold move for the first time to really protect areas in the Arctic Ocean, will be a new trend. They have not approved Shell’s plans yet, they have not reaffirmed lease sale 193. Those decisions are coming in the next several months. We hope that trend continues.
PERIES: And, Subhankar, what’s your take on these contradictory messages coming out of the administration?
BANERJEE: You know, as you mentioned, I’m the editor of the book Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. So we have been really talking about resistance to industrial destruction of these incredibly rich ecological and cultural habitats in the Arctic, both on land and offshore. And as Leah mentioned, it is these collaboration that’s happening between the environmental organizations, the tribal organizations, and governments, as well as a tremendous amount of scientific work that is going on, that is finally–as I said, the president’s decision is only to be welcomed, that the president is finally taking a slightly different stand on this.
And the contradiction is that–let me broaden that topic up slightly, that this contradiction really needs to be challenged, or hopefully the president will take a different decision with regard to Shell’s drilling, because last month–I’ll mention two very significant documents. Both came out–one came out last month and one late last year. One is a major published study, and in the very first paragraph the authors mention that if we are to keep the global temperature below 2 degrees Centigrade beyond the industrial level, the rise that all of the nation-states have agreed to, then we must keep all Arctic resources underground, period. They–unequivocally they say that all Arctic resources must remain underground. So that’s one point.
Second point is that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a major report last year called Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, and they opened–the book opens with a summary, opens with basically two lines. One talks about that the Arctic is the integrator of the planet’s biological, physical, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, meaning that anything that happens in the Arctic will affect the whole planet, not just Arctic. Second point they make in that very report, right at the beginning, is that any spill that happens in the Chuckchi Sea or the Beaufort Sea–this year, Shell is only planning to drill in the Chukchi Sea–will actually become a problem for not only the United States, but other neighboring countries, of the Arctic nation countries, primarily Russia and Canada. But it’ll probably go all over the Arctic.
So with all this enormous, good scientific knowledge that is coming in, as well as the traditional knowledge that the European people have had for a long time, it’s time for the president to really put what I would call a final cap on Shell’s drilling ambition, because, you know, we talk about capping a well that is gushing oil after a blowout, as in Deepwater Horizon. I’m actually saying that we must permanently cap Shell’s gushing desire to drill in the Arctic Ocean.
PERIES: Right. Subhankar, Leah, can you both join me for a second segment, where we can take this up? This sudden interest in the Arctic is one that we need to unravel.
DONAHEY: I’d be happy to. Yeah.
PERIES: Okay. Thank you both very much for joining us on this segment, and please join us for the second segment.
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