Obama Administration Must Keep the Arctic's Wild Seas out of Drilling Plan

President Obama traveled the country last week calling for clean energy projects that would make our nation more prosperous and secure. Unfortunately, he also recommended energy proposals that will put America at risk.

The president directed his administration to open 75 percent of America’s potential oil and gas resources to drilling. That is a highly aggressive leasing plan. Yet where is the equally aggressive plan for safeguarding America’s workers, coastal communities, and marine riches?

I served on the president’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. After an exhaustive review, we concluded the oil industry lacked the kind of safety culture that could prevent another disaster. Meanwhile, the government lacked the authority and resources necessary to police the industry.

Little has changed since we delivered our report to the president a year ago. The industry has resisted change at every turn and Congress has failed to pass a single law related to the largest environmental disaster in American history.

Yet still President Obama supports expanded offshore drilling—including in the fragile Arctic Ocean. The proposed leasing plan the president mentioned in the State of the Union Address opens 15 new lease sale areas, including two in the Arctic.

The Arctic is the last wild ocean on the planet. Scientists have been able to do only limited research in the region, since it is dominated by intense cold, long periods of darkness, hurricane-force storms, dense fog, and ice that persist for much of the year. Neither the oil industry nor scientists have identified a proven way to contain or clean up a spill in these extreme conditions.

Even if they could, the remoteness of the region adds another layer of obstacles. The Coast Guard oversees spill response, yet the base closest to the leasing sites is 1,000 miles away. Ice makes travel even harder, as evidenced by the Russian tanker that got stuck in ice sheets up to 25-feet thick when it was trying to deliver heating oil to Nome, Alaska. It had to be escorted by a Coast Guard medium-scale icebreaker. The trip may have been faster, officials said, if they could have used a heavy-duty icebreaker, but the Coast Guard possesses only three heavy ice breakers. One is retired, one has been converted to a research vessel, and the third is undergoing renovations until at least 2014.

An offshore oil spill in these remote and extreme conditions would devastate our nation’s last remaining pristine ocean areas and harm its many unique species, including polar bears, whales, and seals, and the communities that depend upon them.

Right now, the proposed five-year lease plan is still in draft form. There is still time for NRDC experts and concerned citizens to make their voices heard on how our shared marine resources should be managed.

We are calling on the administration to exclude any lease sales in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from the proposed program. These wild seas and the abundant life they support are simply too sensitive to be drilled. In no event should there should be a plan to lease these areas until key scientific studies have been done and until the oil and gas industry can demonstrate its ability to contain and clean up a spill.

We also want the administration to postpone new lease sales in other areas until the environmental and safety recommendations of the National Commission have been fully implemented. That means the administration should delay new sales in the Gulf of Mexico until sufficient resources and oversight is in place.

And remember that the ocean waters in question belong to all Americans—not to the oil and gas industry. We have a right to demand that decision makers apply the lessons learned from the BP oil disaster before any development proceeds in these wild waters.  Click here to send your message to the administration.