Shell Moves into the Arctic, Will Oil Companies Be in Your Town Next?

When you live in a place where milk comes in a can and groceries are flown by plane, you rely heavily on the natural world to feed your family. For residents of Kaktovik, Alaska, that means turning to the Beaufort Sea for the whales that have sustained the village for generations.  But now, an industrial threat is closing in on this mainstay of Inupiat tradition.

Royal Dutch Shell began exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea last week. It also began drilling in the Chukchi Sea last month, and these operations have been plagued with problems and safety violations.

The company has backpedaled on the amount of oil it said it could recover in a spill, has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to lower air pollution standards for its drilling rigs, and has damaged critical spill response equipment during testing. Shell isn’t even allowed to drill in oil-bearing rock yet because its spill recovery barge hasn’t passed inspection and is stuck in Bellingham, Washington.


Photo: Kate Stafford

Heading into one of the harshest environments on the globe with untested emergency response plans is a recipe for disaster. The Beaufort is packed with ice for most of the year, and no technology exists that can clean up oil in sea ice. The nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away in Kodiak and the nearest cache of clean-up equipment is 2,000 miles away in Seattle. In the event of a spill, oil could linger for months. It would endanger the whales Inupiat people depend upon, and threaten the nearby marine and coastal ecosystems, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It would also intensify climate change. It is a cruel irony that Shell and other oil companies want to exploit the newly warmed Arctic to drill for oil that will make the region even warmer. The Arctic has suffered more from climate change than any other region on Earth. We should be safeguarding it, not compromising it even further.

America doesn’t have to sacrifice our special places for the sake of oil. We have cleaner, more sustainable ways to keep our economy moving. New fuel economy standards finalized by the Obama administration, for instance, will save drivers $80 billion a year by 2030 and cut America’s oil use by more than we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.

Yet still oil companies push for more drilling and fewer safeguards, and they are used to getting what they want. Royal Dutch Shell takes in more money than any company on earth. Seven of the top 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list come from the oil and gas industry, and these companies exert enormous influence on our political system. The industry spent $175.6 million on lobbying in 2009, the year climate legislation was introduced in Congress. And fossil fuel companies have lavished $153 million on campaign ads in this election year, with the American Petroleum Institute alone spending $37 million.

This money yields results. Every single president since Nixon has called for ending America’s oil addiction, and yet we are still hooked on this costly and polluting fuel. At what point will America make a full-throttled commitment to reducing our dependence on oil? Obama’s has made progress by raising fuel economy standards, but his administration opened millions of acres for oil and gas exploration and made 75 percent of potential offshore oil and gas resources available for drilling. It also granted Shell a permit to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

As people living in the Beaufort Sea are realizing, the endless pursuit of oil takes a heavy toll on ordinary Americans. From the Inupiat villagers who worry offshore drilling will ruin their hunting to the North Dakota farmers who live with fracking wastewater pits the size of football fields next to their homes to the Michigan residents who see tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River two years after a pipeline ruptured, people across the country are paying a high price for America’s failed energy policy.

Are you going to let fossil fuel companies own your town because America can’t commit to cleaner alternatives? Are you going to let them trash the last wild ocean on Earth? If you believe our country can get on a cleaner, more sustainable path, then click here and tell your leaders to end reckless oil and gas drilling and support renewable energy resources.

About the Authors

Frances Beinecke

Former President

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