The fight over the Arctic’s future is heating up

Receding ice has oil producers pushing harder than ever to drill in the sensitive area.

A researcher walks on Arctic ice. CREDIT: U.S. Navy/Petty officer 2nd class Tyler N. Thompson
A researcher walks on Arctic ice. CREDIT: U.S. Navy/Petty officer 2nd class Tyler N. Thompson

President Obama has a major opportunity to cement his oceans, climate, and conservation legacy.

On Wednesday, he will host representatives from Arctic nations and communities for a first-of-its-kind meeting on Arctic science. The White House Arctic Science Ministerial comes at a pivotal time for the region. While glacial ice hits record lows, the Arctic is more exposed than ever to the ravages of climate change. That’s because the receding ice has oil producers pushing harder than ever for permission to drill in the ecologically sensitive area.

“The Arctic is likely to be the stage where some of the first irreparable effects of man-made climate change are set.”

The Arctic is often seen as ground zero for climate change. Disappearing glaciers, sea-level rise, melting permafrost, rapidly changing habitats: These are all climate change-related impacts being felt right now in the region. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.


“The Arctic is likely to be the stage where some of the first irreparable effects of man-made climate change are set,” said Cathleen Kelly, author of the report. “Building off of the historic Paris Agreement, world leaders should use the upcoming Arctic ministerial meeting and other such opportunities to forge critical agreements to tackle what the World Economic Forum has called our top global risk.”

But complicating the fight to save the Arctic is that the region houses a massive, largely untapped reservoir of oil.

The future of oil development in the Arctic has been a major question throughout the Obama administration. After first offering lease sales for oil development, the Department of the Interior then reversed course, canceling the opening of additional areas. Then Shell, the only company that was actively exploring for oil in the U.S.-controlled Arctic, announced last fall that it was pulling out of the Chukchi Sea — for now, at least.

Environmentalists applauded Shell’s apparent vanquishing from the area, but it is not at all clear that the fight is over. For starters, the Arctic Ocean is still included in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)’s proposed five-year plan for 2017–2022. The finalized plan is expected this fall.

Last week, leaders from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and others sent a letter to the president, calling on Obama to make the U.S.-controlled Arctic off-limits for oil drilling.


“You were instrumental in creating global consensus in Paris this past December,” the environmentalists write. “As you know, to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption, we must not burn the large majority of already-proven global reserves, let alone unproven resources like what may be in the Arctic or Atlantic oceans.”

(A hard-fought campaign over the past few years resulted in most of the Atlantic Ocean being taken out of the BOEM five-year plan, although permitting continues for seismic testing — a disruptive method to find out how much oil might be available. The Gulf of Mexico still remains in the BOEM plan, and the agency routinely offers new oil and gas lease sales in that area.)

The irony here is that as the ice recedes, it is easier to drill in the Arctic. More drilling, in turn, leads to more fossil fuel use, which drives climate change.

But oil drilling is not the only activity that will be easier as the ice recedes. In August, a luxury cruise liner departed from Alaska on the first-ever modern cruise through the Northwest Passage, which crosses north of Canada to Greenland.

And if cruise ships can pass, so can others. To that end, Obama this month announced a number of new security initiatives in the Arctic.


“Climate change in the Arctic will necessitate greater presence in the region’s open seas,” the White House said in a statement. There is a federal budget request for $150 million to build a new icebreaker ship, and there are plans for additional icebreakers in the works.

The announcement came as part of the Presidential Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security.

The oil and gas industry is taking this opportunity to tout the national security importance of having a presence in the Arctic — and they seem to think oil drilling will help. This month, in the lead-up to the ministerial, a coalition of 20 business, oil, and Arctic groups launched an ad campaign in Washington, D.C., saying oil drilling in the region “helps support Native communities and provides revenue and opportunities. It brings much-needed jobs and investment. And it will help strengthen our national security at a time of growing international tension.”

The ad asks the Obama administration to keep Arctic oil leasing in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s upcoming five-year plan.

But, in fact, the Coast Guard is more likely to have to bail out troubled oil operations than anything else.

“I understand that it can be argued there is a homeland security issue in the Arctic,” Austin Ahmasuk, a marine advocate with Alaskan native group Kawerak, told ThinkProgress. “But how the national security issue can be met by having private oil and gas enterprise there baffles me.”

Rather than national security, Ahmasuk argued that the companies just want to protect their bottom lines.

“If you ask me, the ‘nation’s security’ as they put it seems more about their idea of security and protecting their billions,” he added.