Is Shell’s Move to Abandon Arctic Drilling a Victory for Environmentalists?

Indigenous activist Carl Wassillie and Institute for Policy Studies’s Daphne Wysham say that public pressure spurred Shell’s decision

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

In what environmentalists are describing as an unmitigated defeat for big oil, Shell is abandoning its plans to drill oil and gas in the Alaskan Arctic. The company claims that they only found traces of oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea this summer, motivating their decision to abandon the multi-billion dollar exploration program. However, today’s announcement is also being hailed as a win by environmentalists. But is this really a big win for the environmental movement, or more about the low price of oil making Shell’s Arctic oil exploration financially infeasible?

Now joining us to explore these questions are from Portland, Oregon Daphne Wysham. Daphne is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and the director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy. And from Anchorage, Alaska is Carl Wassillie. Carl is a Yup’iaq Eskimo and co-founder and community organizer with Alaska’s Big Village Network. He has worked extensively on environmental sovereignty with tribal governments and communities in Alaska, including the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council and the Alaska Intertribal Council. Welcome to the both of you, to the Real News.

DAPHNE WYSHAM: Thank you for having us.

BALL: Daphne, if we could start with you. Tell us what this means as you see it, and what perhaps the risks are going forward with oil spills in that region.

WYSHAM: Well, we knew that according to the Department of Interior’s own studies there would be a 75 percent chance of an oil spill which would be completely impossible to clean up. I mean, the environment up there, as you know, is very hostile. The nearest Coast Guard station’s over 1,000 miles away. So the chance of a spill being 75 percent or greater over the next 100 years, it just essentially meant we were going to sacrifice the subsistence dwellers that live in the Arctic and the environment. And we found that completely unacceptable.

BALL: But what do you think about my initial question posed there in the intro? Is Shell’s decision more about–my assumption is they’re not concerned about the potential risks going forward. Is their decision to stop drilling more about the pressure put on them by the environmentalist movement? Or is it more about their claims that they weren’t able to find enough oil to make it financially feasible for them?

WYSHAM: It wasn’t just environmentalists that played a role in this victory. It was people of all walks of life, and in particular Native Americans and First Nations peoples who took the lead and said this was a violation of their rights to survive, and we stood with them.

In terms of whether or not it was a question of whether the price of oil was low or something else, we heard from within Shell, from people within Shell, that there were two factors that would affect their going forward with drilling in the Arctic. One was whether or not the price of oil stayed below $50 a barrel. But the other factor, which we played a very key role in, was keeping the pressure on Shell and tarnishing their reputation, deservedly so, for proceeding with reckless drilling in a part of the world where an oil spill would have happened eventually. So we were playing the PR card, and we won. And we will continue to win like this as we call for no new fossil fuel infrastructure in the entire West Coast, and no drilling in the Arctic. The president needs to take the Arctic off the table for drilling.

BALL: And Carl, I’ll ask you the same question. But I also–and ask you to invite you to add anything you like to that question. But we’re also wondering if corporations are threatened there by the assertion of indigenous treaty rights to the land, and what this might mean for what is reported as a 70-80 percent unemployment rate among indigenous populations in that region.

CARL WASSILLIE: Yes, there’s a number of points that you just made. To answer the question directly, the first one, I’ll start by saying that, as Daphne said, that this was a win for not only Native Americans, environmentalists, and the Inuit and indigenous people of Alaska, but it’s a win for humanity and the planet.

What we have is these regulations, the federal regulations that environmentalists and Alaskan natives put in place to reduce the risk of an oil spill in the Chukchi Sea, in the Beaufort Sea. It wasn’t an oversight, or over–it was these recommendations were put forth that Shell today is saying, well, these are–there’s uncertainty. Of course there’s uncertainty. We want to protect what we have left in the global nurseries of the Arctic Ocean that provide for life. Not only in the Arctic, but also the last of the wild salmon fisheries left on the planet as well as the fish production and the fisheries that provide for the Pacific Northwest, and is the last great American fishery. So from a national point of view this is a win for fishermen, this is a win for Native Americans, this is a win for environmentalists. And this is also a win for the planet.

Now, to–Shell Oil will say what they say as they continue to downplay the public pressure of the millions of people that said, Shell, no. And that’s really important to recognize, that the public pressure–not only on the government, but also on Shell–did play a role in not just the price of oil, and not just Shell’s operations. Their $11 billion wasted away due to their inability to actually find it in this really risky environment in the Arctic.

BALL: You know, Daphne, you mentioned President Obama, and we’re wondering if in light of the fact that, as you both are describing, of all this public pressure playing a big role in stopping Shell’s exploration in the Arctic, do you find any sort of similar political will in American politics to support this movement? In other words, is there a political response, an appropriate or positive political response, that you’re aware of coming from the American political structure that would support going forward? Not only a call for Barack Obama’s statement on the Arctic, but perhaps any other future president or political leader in this country?

WYSHAM: Yeah. Well, one of the excuses that President Obama used for allowing Shell to drill and proceed to drill in the Arctic is that this was a permission that Shell had received from a previous president, from Bush. And so now the ball is definitely in his court. It’s his turn now to take, to lead the country and basically say, we will join other countries and corporations around the world and refuse to drill in the Arctic again.

In fact, it would be fantastic if he were to lead the Arctic regions in calling the Arctic completely off-limits for oil drilling. We know form the words of the pope, as well as the words of President Obama, that the climate crisis is serious, we’ve run out of time. We are not avoiding the 2 degrees dangerous threshold that scientists tell us we need to avoid. We have exceeded it with our commitments to fossil fuel extraction around the world. We need to keep proven reserves, 80 percent of proven reserves in the ground, and all unproven reserves. And that includes everything in the Arctic needs to be off limits if we’re going to be stopping runaway climate change.

So President Obama has nothing to lose, really, by taking a strong stand on protecting the Arctic. We have everything to lose, he has everything to gain.

BALL: So Carl, just let me ask you very quickly as we wrap up here, that’s a similar question about the American political structure an the support that you do or do not find for your movement, and perhaps maybe a final word from you on what you would like to see from our audience, or anyone else, in response or support for your efforts going forward.

WASSILLIE: Thank you. I would like to tell the audience, you know, of course that this is the continuation, we’ll call it the action, to address this dirty fossil fuel business on this planet earth. We do have the ability for just transition to a renewable energy future that’s sustainable for our future generations. We’re looking at a time, now, where we can challenge these systems, challenge the biggest corporations on the planet, and the people rising up will be the reason that we can stop these dirty energy projects from not only destroying our local communities but also our global community.

So now’s the time to stop Shell. No more oil and gas. And the offshore, no more oil and gas, period. I’ll take that, take that home to your communities, and let’s rise up. There’s another world that’s possible. It’s not just about stopping. It’s also about creating the ability for our future generations to have a livable planet, fresh water, animals, and plants.

BALL: Well, Carl Wassillie and Daphne Wysham, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News Network.

WYSHAM: My pleasure, thank you.

WASSILLIE: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you for joining us as well. And for all involved, as always, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

End

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