Obama gives green light to Arctic drilling

The US administration is allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic while at the same time formally pledging as part of the lead up to the Paris climate talks to cut emissions by one quarter over the next decade. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Environmentalists are upset that Obama has paved the way for Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic while at the same time pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-quarter over the next decade. (Photo credit: Greenpeace Finland, flickr)

Environmentalists are upset that Obama has paved the way for Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic while at the same time pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-quarter over the next decade. (Photo credit: Greenpeace Finland, flickr)

President Barack Obama’s energy policy is confusing to environmentalists. “The Obama administration now has a history of setting decent targets and offering nice talking points on climate, but not backing that up with urgent and significant actions to move away from fossil fuels,” said Greenpeace spokesman Kyle Ash in a statement.

Reducing exhaust emissions

The White House pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent by 2025. The announcement was made in a formal submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the lead up to a global agreement to curb climate change that many hope can be finalised by the end of the year in Paris. The US is now on track to cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“That’s a big deal,” wrote White House climate advisor Brian Deese in a blog post. “The United States’ target is ambitious and achievable, and we have the tools we need to reach it.”

Drilling in Alaska

On the same day, the U.S. Department of Interior showed that it has a completely different set of tools to work with when it announced that Shell has drilling rights in the Arctic. Shell had previously secured rights in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska in a 2008 auction for USD 2.1 billion. The Interior Department then put the drilling on hold after a federal court ruled last year that its estimates of how much oil would be produced in the region was not based on sound science.

Regulators had previously said that up to 1 billion barrels of oil were economically recoverable from the available leases. Based on a new environmental impact statement released in February, the department now estimates that drillers could extract 4.3 billion barrels of oil and 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

That same statement also found that there was a 75 per cent chance of a spill releasing more than 1,000 barrels of oil over the next 77 years. In 2012, a Shell drilling rig ran aground on the coast of the Chukchi Sea amid violent storms during a test run for drilling.

For now at least the announcement only relates to drilling rights because the U.S. government still has to approve Shell’s drilling plans. But the energy giant is nonetheless moving more equipment into the region in expectation of restarting oil exploration.

New president, new policies

Environmentalists warn that a new president in 2017 could reverse Obama’s pledge to cut emissions. “Foreign capitals remain nervous given the episodic history of U.S. climate engagement,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser under ex-President Bill Clinton who is now a scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Their concern is well founded as Republicans vow to reverse Obama’s climate change plans. “The Obama Administration’s pledge to the United Nations today will not see the light of day,” said Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who denies that climate change is occurring. “Americans are beginning to question if the cost of billions of dollars to our economy and tens of thousands of lost job opportunities is really worth it for potentially no gain.”

Regulations cannot be easily reversed

But the US Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, said it will not be so easy to reverse the new regulations Obama has put in place for coal plants and other polluters when he leaves office in January 2017. “Undoing the kind of regulations we are putting in place is something that is very hard to do,” Stern said. “Countries ask me about the solidity of what we’re doing all the time, and that’s exactly what I explain.”

 

Photo credit: Greenpeace Finland, flickr/Creative Commons

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