We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling

by Kiley Kroh

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Obama Administration’s highly anticipated plan for proposed offshore oil and gas leases from 2012-2017.  It focuses on exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and giving oil companies the chance to bid on drilling rights in Arctic waters, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet.

Because the plan targets areas with known potential for oil and gas development where exploration is currently active, the administration is ruling out drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts — including an area near Virginia that had been slated for exploration prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Arctic lease sales are scheduled late in the 5-year period to allow for further scientific study and data collection, and longer term planning for spill response preparedness and infrastructure. Deputy Secretary David Hayes also indicated that any expansion of Arctic exploration should account for the “Arctic’s unique environmental resources and the social, cultural, and subsistence needs of Native Alaskan communities.”

With the nearest Coast Guard station over 1,000 miles away and with few proven techniques for oil spill cleanup in extreme Arctic conditions, a spill in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas could devastate the entire region. “If a major spill were to occur in Arctic waters, cleanup crews would have to spend, on average, three to five days of each week simply standing by, watching helplessly as the blowout or spill continued to foul fragile Arctic ecosystems,” said World Wildlife Federation program director Rob Powell.

Opening additional areas of drilling in the Arctic when we so clearly lack adequate response capabilities just confirms that we have apparently learned nothing from the worst offshore oil spill in our nation’s history,” said Michael Conathan, CAP’s Director of Ocean Policy in a statement to National Journal. “As tragic as the Deepwater Horizon disaster was, we must recognize that it occurred in relatively benign environmental conditions. That will not be the case with any spill in the Arctic.”

Shell plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea through October 31st – for a snapshot of the actual worst-case scenario they should be prepared for at this time of year, one only needs to look to the hurricane-force storm, with 35-foot waves and 100mph winds, currently churning toward the Alaskan coast.  While the worst of the unprecedented storm is projected to target the Bering Sea, coastal residents along the Bering and Chukchi seas were urged to “not delay in taking needed precautions for this unusually severe and potentially life-threatening storm.”

While this plan would allow up to five additional years to develop adequate Arctic response capabilities, the Interior Department has not shown the same prudence in permitting Shell’s proposed drilling activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas under leases purchased earlier. Even though US Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp recently told Congress that the US was not prepared to respond to an oil spill in Arctic waters, and lacking any proven method for responding to an oil spill in the region, BOEMRE conditionally approved Shell’s exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea in August.

Meanwhile, continuing to push for expanding drilling in the gulf seems to ignore a report released by Salazar’s own agency earlier this year which found “more than 70 percent of the tens of millions of offshore acres under lease are inactive, neither producing nor currently subject to approved or pending exploration or development plans. This includes almost 24 million inactive leased acres in the Gulf of Mexico.” Rather than investing BOEM’s already strained resources in permitting new areas, oil companies should first use the leases they already have.

The public now has 90 days to weigh in on the draft environmental impact statement and the proposed lease program, before the Interior Department can issue a final environmental impact statement and proposed final program. After another 60 days of review before Congress, the government could finalize the OCS leasing plan.

— Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress. CAP Intern Emma Huvos contributed to this report.

18 Responses to We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling

  1. Foppe says:

    Wrong. It isn’t that “we” (the politicians?) have learned nothing; it is simply that they don’t give a rat’s ass. There are profits to be made, and the rest can be externalized.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Anyone who has lived in DC for a while learns that it is a military town almost as much as a political one. Lawyers from small towns in the Heartland go to Washington and become obsessed with keeping us “safe”, and feeding the military machine.

    Presidents get this disease even worse, and Obama is a rookie. It takes old timers to get this- Vietnam War rebels in the Senate were led by fogies like Morse, Fulbright, and Dirksen, and it was a similar situation for recent wars.

    This is a charitable interpretation of Obama’s actions, which is just as bad as someone like Perry saying “yes sir” when Tillerson or Koch calls. Obama wants oil for our jets and tanks, and his CIA staffers are forever cautioning him about what will happen to the financial industry and gas prices if the Straits of Hormuz are closed.

    It’s a circle of death: get the oil to feed our vehicles to get the oil. The military is actually way ahead of politicians here, but the CIA and reactionaries at the Pentagon (mostly Air Force and staff) keep scaring the shit out of our politicians. Hillary and Salazar also have this disease, and let’s not even talk about the Republicans.

    Drilling in the Arctic shows just horrible judgment, as with opening up more of the Gulf, obviously supporting tar sands oil, and the rest of it.

    Our president is turning out to be mostly just a talker. I’ve met a ton of them in DC. What we really need is someone with imagination, and the kind of intelligence that atrophies in law school and the Senate.
    Let’s hope he’s out there, and is capable of waking people up.

  3. catman306 says:

    What’s the albedo of oil covered ice? Fast melting, in my snow belt, northern city experience. When the sun comes out, it melts no matter that the temperature is below freezing (within reason). Won’t that spilled oil just cover some more ice and melt it too?

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Another 3rd term of the Bush administration energy decision.

    I can see the political calculation here – Energy access (particularly oil production) trumps all else and would be safest (in the campaign’s opinion) during the election.

    Its hard to see how we’re not just going to suck and dig every last bit of profitable carbon based energy from the planet.

  5. britney says:


  6. Paul Magnus says:

    It would be really helpful if Obama explained decisions like these in the context of the aim to reduce the US GHG emissions and set out a plan on how that is achived going forward on this path.

    I know the US has to have energy security, but as it stands there is no way forward we can see how the US is going to achieve a reduction in GHG.

    The outcome is 4C+. Therefore, where is the plan to adapt to this. Of course there is no really way to, but if that is the path we’re taking then someone must think we can.

  7. John McCormick says:

    Paul, I share your opinions.

    Though, I believe we can both agree that planning to adapt to a 4 degree+ C increase is an impossible task because we can only assume climate conditions to which we’d have to adapt and we have absolutely no context by which to determine what and how we must do to adapt.

    And, well before the 4 degree increase, the cost of surviving what we have done to ourselves will strip all possibility there will be funds and social order to start adapting.

    Texas may be a lost cause from here on out and soon the US southwest will follow. No adapting there. Out migration, yes.

  8. Artful Dodger says:


  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Unfortunately, this sounds accurate. Every President gets bogged down by wars and the shortest-term, least rational fears around.

    So it is up to us to keep pushing for clean energy. Using every tool available. Everywhere. All the time. Sort of like Joe does on this blog.

    (My whining won’t cut it.)

  10. WyrdWays says:

    This is the problem with taking a purely technological approach to the issue of solving climate change.

    Climate change, and a host of other environmental catastrophes, are being driven by a system which has ‘short-term profit’ hard-wired in its genes.

    No accounting for external costs, no other moral imperative than maximizing shareholder profit, no other times scale than the next reporting period. It is the system that ate the state in the credit crisis, the system which has hollowed out our hard-won rights and safeguards, the system that is pillaging the planet.

    Unless the system is rebooted, the world is going to crash.

  11. riverat says:

    Won’t that spilled oil just cover some more ice and melt it too?
    But that will just make the drilling conditions even better. /snark

  12. j4zonian says:


    Although sometimes we can come to informed opinions,we don’t know the motivations of any particular person. So we can’t assume there’s just one strategy to deal with people who support drilling.

    The question is how do we stop this travesty? #Occupy the Arctic?

  13. Joan Savage says:

    One risk related to this oil and gas exploration is that the Beaufort Sea shelf already has melting methane clathrates.


    Origin of pingo-like features on the Beaufort Sea shelf and their possible relationship to decomposing methane gas hydrates

    Charles K. Paull et al.

    The Arctic shelf is currently undergoing dramatic thermal changes caused by the continued warming associated with Holocene sea level rise. During this transgression, comparatively warm waters have flooded over cold permafrost areas of the Arctic Shelf. A thermal pulse of more than 10°C is still propagating down into the submerged sediment and may be decomposing gas hydrate as well as permafrost. A search for gas venting on the Arctic seafloor focused on pingo-like-features (PLFs) on the Beaufort Sea Shelf because they may be a direct consequence of gas hydrate decomposition at depth. Vibracores collected from eight PLFs had systematically elevated methane concentrations. ROV observations revealed streams of methane-rich gas bubbles coming from the crests of PLFs. We offer a scenario of how PLFs may be growing offshore as a result of gas pressure associated with gas hydrate decomposition.

  14. Caroler says:

    Drilling in the Arctic is like a heroin addict selling not one, but two, kidneys for a fix.

  15. mulp says:

    BP pollute the Gulf and the next thing We the People do is elect Republicans who made it absolutely clear they were going to make it legal to pollute the oceans, lands, and air, plus legalize killing workers, because the laws of the EPA and OSHA kill jobs, so let’s kill people and the future instead for the empty promise of jobs.

    Don’t blame Obama for doing what We the People demanded in 2010.

  16. MarkfromLexington says:

    “The public now has 90 days to weigh in”

    Does anybody have a link to the site where we can “weigh in”?

  17. DonFromFairfax says:

    It’s too bad that this very informative article did not contain information adviosing HOW to Object (or otherwise comment)during the Comment Period. But, have no fear, DonFromFairfax is here.

    From the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management:

    BOEM will accept comments in one of two formats: By mail or via our Internet commenting system. Please submit your comments using only one of these formats, and include full names and addresses. Comments submitted by other means may not be considered. We will not consider anonymous comments, and we will make available for inspection in their entirety all comments submitted by organizations and businesses or by individuals identifying themselves as representatives of organizations and businesses. Our practice is to make comments, including the names and home addresses of respondents, available for public review. An individual commenter may ask that we withhold his or her name, home address, or both from the public record, and we will honor such a request to the extent allowable by law. If you submit comments and wish us to withhold such information, you must so state prominently at the beginning of your submission.


    By Internet —

    Federal eRulemaking Portal: Under the tab “More Search Options,” click “Advanced Docket Search,” then select “Bureau of Ocean Energy Management” from the agency drop-down menu, then click the submit button. In the Docket ID column, select BOEM-2011-0119 to submit public comments and to view related materials available for the proposed program.

    Information on using, including instructions for accessing documents, submitting comments, and viewing the docket after the close of the comment period, is available through the site’s “User Tips” link. The BOEM will post all comments.

    By Mail —

    Mail comments and information to: Steven Textoris, 5-Year Program Manager, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (MS-4010), Room 3120, 381 Elden Street, Herndon, Virginia 20170. Please label your comments and the packaging in which they are submitted as “Comments on Proposed 5-Year Program for 2012-2017.” If you submit any privileged or proprietary information to be treated as confidential, please mark the envelope, “Contains Confidential Information.”Show citation box


    Steven Textoris, 5-Year Program Manager, at (703) 787-1215.