The animal that comes most readily to mind when thinking of the Arctic, climate change, or sea ice melt is certainly the polar bear. Who woulda thunk, then, that the walrus would turn out to be the most headache-inducing megafauna for Shell as the global oil company tries to drill in the melting Arctic this summer.
Yesterday marked a major development in the ongoing battle royale between Shell, the Obama administration, federal regulators, and environmentalists. The quick and dirty? As part of Shell’s exploration plan to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of northern Alaska this summer, the company had planned to drill two simultaneous wells, 9 miles apart. Yesterday, the Department of Interior, the federal agency in charge of regulating Shell’s Arctic drilling project, said that Shell could only drill one well at a time. This ruling was part of a letter of authorization from the Fish & Wildlife Service granting Shell permission to “incidentally harass” mammals including the Pacific walrus.
So. Shell wants two wells. The Obama administration says it now can only have one. How did we arrive here and what does it mean for all the parties involved? Before looking back at the recent history of the regulatory back-and-forth, let’s remember that the Obama administration is STILL allowing Shell to drill in Alaska this summer—meaning we need to keep the pressure on our President to kick Shell, a company with an astonishing history of incompetence, out of the Arctic for good. If President Obama has any interest in protecting his progressive legacy, which just had a historic week, he should certainly take heed.
Okay, some details: The Fish and Wildlife Service regulations stipulate that there must be a 15 mile “minimum spacing” requirement between Shell’s two rigs while Shell operates in the Burger prospect, the drill site in the Chukchi Sea, to minimize the impact on local walrus and other wildlife. Shell’s Exploration Plan and its Application for Permit to Drill involve both its rigs drilling simultaneous wells, which will only be 9 miles apart. If, unlike Shell, you can do basic math, this is a clear violation of the FWS regulation.
In late June, EarthJustice, on behalf of other environmental NGOs including Greenpeace, asked Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to deny Shell’s individual drilling permits as well as pending FWS incidental take applications for walrus and polar bears, and to “address this basic deficiency in Shell’s plan,” ensuring that the US government’s position is “defensible and lawful.” Yesterday’s letter from the Department of Interior was essentially a response to the letter sent from those groups.
Oh and “incidental take”, by the way, is defined by the Fish & Wildlife Service as “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”
So in a world where rules are rules, the Department of Interior would have responded to this blatant violation with a “no dice” response to Shell. Instead, regulators have introduced a workaround for Shell. The company can still drill this summer, if granted their remaining permits, as long as there is no simultaneous drilling. This is yet another example of the US regulator colluding with Shell to enable Arctic drilling, rather than doing its job—which in Obama’s own words is to regulate Arctic drilling to the highest possible standard.
While some may consider this a serious setback for Shell, it’s sort of like getting caught robbing a bank and being told you can keep half the money—and come back for the rest during normal banking hours. Shell’s exploration plan is technically now invalid as it is in violation of a federal regulation. Yet the Department of Interior has catered to this billion-dollar company instead of taking the high road and rescinding the lease completely. Lest we forget that the letter in which this stipulation was introduced was federal permission for an oil company to harass wildlife including the Pacific walrus and polar bears.
The wording of the Department of Interior’s document is vague, but it seems to say Shell can prepare both sites for drilling—bringing in drill rigs and any number of support vessels and laying elaborate anchor patterns on the seafloor—all activities which will affect the walrus population, but that Shell just can’t drill in both locations at once. This clearly violates the intent of the 2013 regulation, which was to protect the walruses from harassment by human activity.
So while some interpretations of this development in the media consider this a “major blow” to Shell, Greenpeace won’t be popping any corks until Shell is kicked out the Arctic once and for all.
One drill at a time is still one drill too many.
There has never been more public opposition to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans as there is right now. Just yesterday, five senators, led by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, sent a letter to President Obama urging the White House to rescind Shell’s lease to drill in the Arctic. And “kayaktivistist” is a major contender for the buzzword of 2015 thanks to the incredible passion and action from people in Seattle. People from all walks of life, including native Alaskans, parents, children, and local politicians, were willing to paddle out in their kayaks to protest Shell’s 40,000 ton drilling rig the Polar Pioneer. This is all on top of the half a million Americans who have asked President Obama to step in and permanently cancel Shell’s drilling lease in the Arctic.
President Obama should take this opportunity now to stop this catastrophe before it starts. If the President is serious about stopping the worst effects of climate change, it’s time for him to stop Arctic drilling for good.
Cassady Sharp is a Media Officer at Greenpeace USA.
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