White House to Shell: Take to the (Arctic) Sea!

09 Aug 2009, Nordaustlandet, Norway --- Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) reflected in pools on melting ice on Sabinebukta Bay at Irminger Point.
Photo: Paul Souders/Corbis

The Interior Department gave a thumbs-up to Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc.’s plan to do some offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, where some believe there could be billions of barrels of oil waiting for the taking. The oil company will still need to get approval from regulators and acquire other permits, but environmental groups are already unhappy that the project, set to commence drilling this summer, has received the White House green light — especially given how Shell’s last attempt in the region ended (not well).

Drilling in a very cold and windy environment is very difficult, and Shell was not prepared for how hard retrieving that oil would be when it last tried in 2012. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a press conference in 2013 that “Shell screwed up in 2012 and we’re not going to let them screw up whenever their pause is removed unless they have these systems in place … It doesn’t mean that exploration cannot continue.”

Shell repented, and the Interior Department thinks that everyone has learned enough to try this again. Initial tests of equipment have gone well, and the Obama administration had already shown it was willing to consider new offshore drilling projects; in January, the administration approved a proposal that could lead to drilling off the southern Atlantic coast. 

Environmental groups, never too pleased with Obama, quickly added this to their list of reasons to be miffed at his administration and this seeming inconsistency in his otherwise consistent statements on energy and climate change.

Many environmental groups gathered in Seattle at the end of April to hold a “Shell No” rally, a sentiment that the Sierra Club’s Twitter feed echoed today. Sarah Murray at conservation group Oceana told reporters, “Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk.” Bill McKibben at 350.org released a statement saying“Shell helped melt the Arctic and now they want to drill in the thawing waters; it beggars belief that the Obama administration is willing to abet what amounts to one of the greatest acts of corporate irresponsibility in the planet’s history.”

However, the Obama administration has also taken steps this year to protect 12 million acres in Alaska from drilling by announcing a proposal that would designate new areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as “wilderness” — and would require congressional approval. This idea made Alaska lawmakers like Senator Lisa Murkowski angry; she released a statement that said, “I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska.”

It’s not certain that Shell’s project will be approved — but it is certain that regardless of what happens, someone will be very angry with President Obama at the end.