New Bill Seeks To Ban Oil And Gas Drilling In The Arctic

CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Geological Survey, S.A. Sonsthagen

An oil spill in the Chukchi Sea could be devastating to wildlife.

A new bill to ban oil and gas drilling in the Arctic recognizes that continued oil development will exacerbate human-caused climate change and points out that a potential spill would be devastating to the fragile Arctic environment.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) on Thursday introduced the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act of 2015, which prohibits any new or renewed leases for exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas, or other minerals in the region.

“A spill in the Arctic would be an environmental catastrophe of extraordinary proportions – and such a spill is inevitable if drilling proceeds,” Merkley said in a statement. “Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is the height of irresponsibility. We need to put it off limits, permanently.”

The Department of Interior has estimated there is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill of more than 42,000 gallons if drilling in the Arctic is developed. The Arctic region is home to one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems, with extreme and treacherous conditions. In the case of a spill, there is severely limited capacity to respond.

The Bureau of Offshore Energy Management has estimated that cleaning up a major spill in the Chukchi Sea would cost between $10 billion and $15 billion.

This past spring, five years after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which dumped roughly 210 million gallons of oil into the gulf, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines. According to estimates from the Wall Street Journal, the spill cost BP some $53.8 billion.

But money can’t always buy mitigation. A National Wildlife Federation report issued on the fifth anniversary of the spill found at least 20 animal populations are still being impacted by the environmental devastation.

In addition to the damage of a potential oil spill, the Merkley bill puts Arctic drilling in the context of fighting climate change. The bill flatly accepts the science of anthropogenic climate change, asserting that 80 percent of of the carbon from known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to have an 80 percent chance of avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change. “Developing oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean is incompatible with staying within that global carbon budget and avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” the bill says.

Back in May, the Obama administration approved controversial plans for Royal Dutch Shell to conduct exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Two weeks later, the president took to Twitter to explain his actions, saying, “we can’t prevent oil exploration completely in [the] region,” and so it has to be done with the “highest possible standards.”

The approval to drill up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea, approximately 70 miles northwest of Wainwright, Alaska, was not given with carte blanche. Due to wildlife protection rules, the company is not allowed to bore two of its proposed wells simultaneously, effectively halving the rate the company can explore under its current plan. In Arctic exploration, time is critical, because the season is short and must be completed before sea ice forms.

But the Arctic summer may be getting longer. The region is considered to be ground zero for the effects of climate change, because it is affected even faster than middle latitudes. During “Arctic amplification,” the replacement of white snow and ice with darker water and ground means more heat absorption, which means more melting. More melting allows for more drilling and related pollution, which means more melting.

It’s not as though we don’t know that the Arctic is in trouble. In fact, the Merkley bill came on the same day the United States and four other northern countries, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway, agreed to ban commercial fishing in the Arctic, pending research on how global warming is affecting fish populations.

The bill is co-sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as well as Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).

In the current Republican-controlled Senate, however, it’s not likely the bill will get much traction.