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Deepwater Horizon anniversary reminds us that offshore Arctic oil isn't worth the risk

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published April 29, 2016

This week is the six-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most cataclysmic manmade environmental disasters during President Obama's time in office. Taking a lesson from that catastrophe, Obama administration officials recently unveiled a draft offshore drilling plan that will keep the Atlantic Ocean off limits to oil drilling rigs at least through 2022. This welcome decision is major step forward that advances the president's unprecedented commitment to taking meaningful action on climate change. But at the same time, the federal government's proposed five-year leasing plan leaves the door open to more offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean. This would be a serious mistake, taking us in the wrong direction in combating climate change and placing communities and irreplaceable wildlife at risk.

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster left 11 rig workers dead and caused billions of dollars in damage to coastal communities, recreational businesses, the fishing industry and the marine ecosystem. Those were the effects of a major spill in the Gulf. Now imagine how Deepwater Horizon might have played out in a region 1,000 miles away from the nearest Coast Guard station, without basic infrastructure like roads, deep-water ports, hotels or large airports. That's the reality in the Arctic, where crews would have to make their way into a dark sea, completely frozen or filled with chunks of floating ice, to clean up an oil spill.

Experts agree an oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic. The government itself has admitted that there is a 75 percent chance of a major spill occurring in the region if the Arctic's Chukchi Sea is developed. Yet new offshore leases would be offered in the Chukchi under the administration's current proposal.

Beyond the serious risk of an oil spill that could not be contained or cleaned up, allowing offshore drilling to go forward there would take us in the wrong direction on climate change, and would be a blemish on President Obama's stellar climate legacy. Extracting oil and gas to burn for fuel would only result in releasing more greenhouse gas emissions, making it harder for us to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

In December 2015, the United States joined more than 180 other countries in signing the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. More recently, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a joint statement vowing to address the global climate crisis and protect the fragile Arctic region.

Today there are no offshore oil production rigs in the waters of America's Arctic Ocean. Allowing offshore drilling to proceed would take us backward at a time when we should be moving forward to achieve the reductions necessary to reverse global warming. The world's leading climate scientists have concluded that the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves -- let alone undiscovered potential resources like those in the Arctic Ocean -- must remain undeveloped if we are to have a fair shot at staying within the necessary temperature cap. And recent science makes clear that from a climate perspective, the Arctic Ocean is top on the list of the places we should avoid to fulfill the international commitment that warming must be limited to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Accelerated warming could still put us on a path toward worsening drought conditions, more frequent severe weather events, a higher risk of crop failure and other consequences of climate change. Federal data suggest that 2015 was the warmest year on record, and global temperatures hit an all-time record high in February 2016.

Instead of opening the door to new offshore drilling, the Interior Department should omit Arctic and Gulf lease sales from its final five-year plan. And in keeping with his leadership in combating climate change, President Obama should use his separate authority to ensure both the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, still untouched by oil development, never again face the threat of oil drilling in any future plan.

Erik Grafe is a staff attorney in the Anchorage office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.

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