President Obama Approves Drilling in the Arctic: Should We Be Outraged?
- May 15, 2015
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On Monday, the Obama Administration gave conditional approval for Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic waters off the northern coast of Alaska.
The decision was greeted with outrage Tuesday by climate activist and author Bill McKibben, who challenged the Obama Administration’s decision to repeatedly offer up new fossil energy resources on public lands. In addition to the Arctic, the Obama Administration has opened up new swaths of Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters to oil and gas drilling and approved leases for new coal fields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin region.
While acknowledging President Obama’s steps to cut emissions from power plants, cars, and trucks, McKibben goes so far as to call Obama’s decisions on oil and coal leasing the equivalent of climate denial:
This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn’t real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.
McKibben’s rhetoric is way over the top. (Chris Turner call it outright irresponsible, and he may be right). After all, this president has done more to confront climate change than any other American president.
But as New York Times reporter Coral Davenport notes, there’s an obvious tension between the president’s effort to cement his legacy as a climate champion and his repeated decisions to unlock more domestic fossil energy resources for extraction.
McKibben knows this, and he’s found what I imagine is a personal “pain point” for the president and is exploiting it by publicly challenging his green credentials.
As Matthew Nisbet, a professor specializing in climate communications, has argued, McKibben’s tactics can be polarizing, and he is unlikely to convince new supporters to rally behind the climate cause with this kind of rhetoric.
Yet by publicly challenging Obama’s legacy, McKibben may also be effective at hitting the president where it hurts.
How those tactical considerations balance out in the end is unclear, at least to me.
On substance, Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations raises several good points (as usual) in reply to McKibben. The demand-side of the equation is the biggest lever in tackling climate change. As long as the United States (and elsewhere) continues to consumes vast amounts of oil and coal, those resources will continue to be extracted somewhere in the world.
The Obama Administration’s view seems to be that as long as we are consuming oil or coal, we might as well be consuming domestic resources to the benefit of the U.S. economy.
At the same time, Obama is trying to cut back consumption of fossil fuels by regulating power plant greenhouse gas emissions, improving vehicle fuel economy, and supporting the growth of renewable and nuclear energy.
That position isn’t anything close to climate denial. But it’s also far too simplistic.
Climate change arguments aside, the Arctic is one of the most environmentally risky places to drill in the world.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore drilling, put the odds of one or more spills resulting from offshore Arctic oil drilling at 75 percent.
As Davenport writes at the NYTimes, environmentalists and oil industry officials alike believe a drilling accident in the Arctic Sea “could lead to a disaster far worse than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing through the Gulf of Mexico.”
The closest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away. The weather is extreme, with major storms, icy waters and waves up to 50 feet high. The sea is also a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, including bowhead whales and walruses.
In short, there’s very little assurance that an accident on an Arctic drilling rig could be contained and the risks of a full-blown disaster are quite real.
On environmental grounds alone then, I think drilling offshore in the Arctic is a foolish risk.
The climate case against Arctic oil is not as straightforward. The argument is that limiting oil supplies will have an effect on global oil prices, which will have an effect on demand.
Playing whack-a-mole and trying to block all extraction efforts is a losing strategy in the long run. Unless we have real substitutes for oil and coal, we’ll continue burning these fuels, and efforts to constrain supply will have only limited impact on demand.
In short, efforts to constrain off fossil energy supplies will never be central to tackling climate change. Michael Levi is right there. Our primary efforts should concentrate on reducing demand for fossil fuels.
At the same time, Obama keeps unilaterally opening up new federal lands and waters for fossil energy extraction.
He hasn’t made these decisions as part of some broader political compromise—for example, as part of a deal to secure bipartisan support for cap and trade legislation or in exchange for dedicating the revenues from public leases to funding clean energy innovation.
The fact that Obama keeps giving away the store without anything in exchange makes it clear the president actually thinks these decisions are good policy on their own merits and that he sees no real conflict with his climate objectives.
In short, President Obama has been treating the supply side of the equation as if it is completely irrelevant to climate policy.
That’s a big mistake.
The supply side is secondary, sure. But irrelevant? Far from it.
President Obama has done a lot—more than any prior president—to cut American demand for coal and oil.
But it’s long past time for President Obama to think harder about where his decisions to open up federal lands and waters for fossil energy extraction fit into a more comprehensive climate strategy.
Here’s a pair of simple principles:
- If extracting oil or coal in a particular region poses substantial environmental risks that are greater than other regions—as it does in the Arctic—then restricting development there can be done at a net win to the environment and the climate, even after considering demand-side dynamics. Yes, we will consume oil or coal from another region instead, but one with lower environmental risks. And by restricting exploitation of these environmentally sensitive regions, global oil prices will be marginally higher, leading to a marginal decline in demand and a modest climate benefit.
- Perhaps more importantly, if we decide the environmental risks are tolerable and auction off the finite fossil energy resources on our public lands and waters, we should dedicate the proceeds of these sales to developing and deploying the low-carbon substitutes for oil and coal that will power our economy in the future. This was originally a Republican idea, and it’s long past time the Obama Administration embraced it. Such a policy would explicitly link the supply and demand sides of the equation, and ensure that any time we extract publicly owned oil and coal resources, we are also taking a step closer to making these resources obsolete.
So should we be outraged that President Obama has opened another vast swath of public lands for fossil energy extraction?
Bill McKibben’s condemnation of Obama is over the top, and applying the term “climate denier” to this president may complete the transformation of this term into a cudgel used to club anyone who disagrees with your favored climate strategy.
At the same time, what else is new? It’s an op ed after all, a domain where rhetorical flourish is the name of the game.
Personally, I’m more disappointed in President Obama than I am in McKibben. After all, Barack’s climate tactics matter a heck of a lot more than Bill’s.
Reducing demand for fossil fuels will always be the central thrust of any successful climate strategy.
But it is also time to stop treating decisions to expand fossil fuel supplies as if they are irrelevant to the climate conversation.
If it takes a little overblown outrage to get that conversation started, that’s fine by me.