Victory for the Arctic Ocean: No Drilling Next Summer or Maybe Ever

Shell's drill rig, the Kulluk, ran aground New Year's Eve.


U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

The wild Arctic Ocean just got a blast of good news. Yesterday Shell Oil bowed to the inevitable and announced it will not be drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska this summer. Now the region’s coastal villages and its whales, dolphins, and polar bears will be spared a repeat of Shell’s disaster-laden attempt to drill two summers ago.

Shell’s decision follows on the heels of a federal court ruling last week. The court agreed with NRDC and our allies that the Bush administration wildly underestimated the potential for oil spills and other hazards when it decided to issue oil leases off Alaska’s remote north coast. That violates federal law and throws the whole lease program into limbo.

This opens up a priceless opportunity for the Obama administration. It is their chance to step back from a leasing program not of their making and develop a fresh approach to our last still-pristine ocean. Now they can fully protect this fragile and magical marine environment from the ravages of industrial development.

NRDC has long understood that that no company is a match for this remote and rugged region. The Arctic Ocean is beset by unpredictable currents, massive ice floes, high seas, and strong winds. No demonstrated technology exists to contain and clean up a serious spill in these seas.

Shell's drill rig grounded off the coast of Alaska, January 2013

Shell had a frightening taste of some of these challenges when it tried to drill in 2012. Its rig had to flee from a 30-mile-long iceberg. Its emergency response equipment was “crushed like a beer can” during tests. Its ships leaked fuel. And its drill rig was grounded and battered by relatively routine winter weather.

The industry has witnessed Shell’s failures, and other oil giants have long since canceled or suspended their plans for the region. Shell was the last holdout—until Thursday’s announcement about the 2014 season.

I welcome these decisions, but we must protect the Arctic Ocean from drilling once and for all. If we fail, we stand to lose one of the most spectacular pieces of our natural heritage. And we’ll enable an oil binge that feeds climate disruption and threatens our communities with extreme weather.  

We don’t have to sacrifice special places and court climate chaos to power our economy. Cars that go farther on a tank of gasoline are already helping us reduce our hunger for oil. Indeed, thanks to stronger fuel efficiency standards, our cars get 16 percent better gas mileage than they did in 2007. That will only increase as automakers prepare to meet the fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.

With these solutions in hand and the oil industry’s limitations more evident than ever, it is time to pull the Arctic Ocean out of America’s energy plans, now and for all generations to come.

Last summer I stood on the northernmost shores of the United States, gazing out over the pristine Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and hoped for this day. Now that it has come, we must persuade the Obama administration to seize it—to make the right and prudent choice and to end the folly of putting these, our vast and vibrant polar bear seas, at catastrophic risk.


Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard