Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Justice, Natural Resources

Drilling the Arctic: The Trump Administration Approves Exploration Plans in the Arctic Ocean

President Obama’s environmental legacy suffered another attack earlier this year when President Trump signed an executive order to expand offshore drilling and his Administration approved offshore drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean. The approval substantiates Trump’s campaign promises and his “America First Energy Plan,” which aims to “take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves” on federal land.

During his last few weeks in office, President Obama enacted a moratorium on offshore drilling pursuant to section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and withdrew hundreds of millions of acres of federally-owned land in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from oil and natural gas exploration and production. In the Atlantic Ocean, the ban stretched from Massachusetts to Virginia. In the Arctic Ocean, the ban encompassed ninety-eight percent of Arctic waters, including all U.S. owned land in the Cukchi Sea and all but 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea. Section 12(a) of OCSLA granted the president authority to indefinitely “withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.” 43 U.S.C. § 1341(a).

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced its conditional approval of an exploratory drilling plan in the Beaufort Sea submitted by Eni US Operating Co. Inc., a subsidiary of the Italian multinational oil and gas company Eni S.p.A.. Leases of federal land in the Beaufort Sea were acquired by Eni more than ten years ago and would have expired by the end of the year had Eni not acted. According to a BOEM news release, Eni’s plan entails the construction of four exploration wells which will be utilized solely during winter months. Expanding for more than six miles, these wells will be the longest extended reach wells off the Alaskan coast.

Offshore drilling poses severe environmental impacts. Of great concern is the risk of oil spills which are exacerbated because of low temperatures. Extreme weather conditions, extended periods of seasonal darkness, and extensive ice coverage increase the risks of such incidents occurring and limit response to such incidents. Drilling also contributes to climate change by releasing nearly 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of oil and gas. Furthermore, it disturbs and affects marine ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots that are critical to fisheries. Endangered species, such as the bowhead whale, fin whale, Pacific walrus, and polar bear visit and inhabit the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are likely to be impacted.

Although BOEM’s evaluation of Eni’s plan provided two separate public comment periods–one which allowed the public to provide information on issues that should be examined in an Environmental Assessment and another which allowed the public to comment on the exploration plan–the public received a mere ten days to comment during the first period and twenty-one days to review and comment during the second period. At this time, construction is scheduled to commence in December of this year.

Several environmental organizations, including Earthjustice, Greenpeace, WWF and the Sierra Club, and Republican governors have publicly opposed offshore drilling. Although the public comment periods have ended for both the Arctic and Atlantic plans, it’s up to us, the people, to reach out to our representatives and express our opposition to the Trump Administration’s drilling plans.

By: Wendy Chiapaikeo