Shell Game

The Obama administration steps aside in the Arctic, and commits all of us to the ultimate sucker’s bet.

Why why why why why?

I write this in early June, haunted by the ghosts of oil despoliation past, present, and future. We’ve just marked the five-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and you’ll find “The Birds of British Petroleum,” an account by The Tarball Chronicles author David Gessner of his return to the scene of the slime. And then, mere weeks ago, as if to confirm for us that nothing has changed, a pipeline broke in Santa Barbara, blackening an ecosystem that’s been called “The Galápagos of North America” with tens of thousands of gallons of oil (see “The Definition of Insanity,” by Tyler Hayden).

But it’s the skeletal finger pointing implacably toward the inevitable next catastrophe, up in the Arctic, that has me muttering, agog at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision to approve Shell’s plan for drilling this summer in the treacherous, remote, and ecologically invaluable waters of the Chukchi Sea. Why?!

This drilling plan is a two-pronged attack on the Arctic, combining the near-certainty of a wilderness-destroying catastrophic spill with the ice-cap-melting extraction and eventual immolation of oil that, if we are to have any hope of slowing and surviving global warming, must be left uncombusted in the earth.

Please be clear: I’m not directing my ire at Royal Dutch Shell. The trajectory of capitalism is inexorable, and Shell is an energy provider with a duty to maximize shareholder value. We can hope that market forces, including enlightened shifting consumer demand, will accelerate the company’s embrace of more renewable energy sources. For now, however, it is fundamentally a carbon extractor with billions in already-accounted-for shareholder value locked deep under the ocean, at risk of becoming “stranded assets” if the regulatory environment ever swings against it; its motivation, predictably enough, is to find and pump that stuff up as swiftly as it can.

But as for the Obama administration—come on, man. The BOEM’s own updated environmental impact statement, released just three months before this decision, estimates a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill and disastrous devastation of local wildlife. And we neither need the oil nor can we afford, climatically, to burn it. President Obama asserted, in his first-ever Twitter chat, that “we can’t prevent oil exploration completely in [the] region.” This may, ultimately, prove true, but—as Natasha Geiling explains in her smart analysis—there are in fact several options open to him that might shut it down permanently, and that would at least effectively delay it. Yet, following some unknown, and ill-considered, calculation, President Obama has chosen to abandon the attempt. To quote Audubon CEO David Yarnold, “Is today’s ruling just bad policy, cynical, or politically motivated? How about all of the above?”

If, like me, you’d like to try to do something about this, take action here.

Mark Jannot is the Vice President for Content at Audubon.