The candidates have been hurling accusations about who would protect whom; wealthy friends, Wall Street, corporations, families, immigrants, jobs … but this I know: The Founding Fathers created a government meant to protect the citizens’ interests.
As an ecologist who wrote a book about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I want to point out one specific opportunity right now for how the government can safeguard one of our collective interests. In the coming weeks, the Obama administration has the opportunity to prevent new oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic waters for the next 5 years.
Allow me to explain. I once said in a TED talk that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout revealed “absolutely mind-boggling unpreparedness.” BP operated sloppily because they could. They could because of the failure of oversight of our government, which is supposed to protect us.
BP’s oil from the Deepwater Horizon well flowed for months, even though the well was in the warm Gulf of Mexico, only about 50 miles from one of the world’s largest concentrations of oil-rig service and response facilities.
Now imagine that blowout happening in a part of the ocean that is remote, harsh, unforgiving, often cold, and dark for months each year: the Arctic. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognizes the difficulty of responding to oil spills there: “Arctic conditions change the way oil behaves compared with warmer waters. Cold temperatures make oil more viscous (thick and slow-flowing), and in a spill, oil may be trapped in, on, and under floating sea ice, further complicating predictions of its movement.”
When oil disasters happen in Alaska, they have a lasting impact. In the first few months following the Exxon Valdez spill, which took place in the relatively sheltered and warmer waters of Prince William Sound, thousands of seabirds and otters, fishes, and about 30 percent of the killer whales died. To varying degrees their numbers and their health have never recovered.
This summer I joined 377 other scientists calling on President Obama to remove the Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort Sea planning areas from its proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022. We emphasized to the president that this region “provides vital marine habitats for iconic wildlife such as beluga whales, walruses, and ice seals found nowhere else in the United States.”
Further, we noted that the area is “profoundly affected by climate change — including loss of sea ice, acidification of the ocean, and increased access for industries that pose significant risks to the ocean environment.”
A recent study from an international group of scientists released by the World Wildlife Fund showed just how vulnerable Alaska and the Arctic are to climate change. With a global temperature increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, the Arctic could see an increase of 5 degrees Celsius, which is 9 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature increase will wreak havoc on the people who live in the Arctic and the wildlife that depend on it. It makes no sense to drill for oil in this increasingly sensitive area, which will exacerbate the steep challenges it already faces.
We need to make the era of oil and gas yield to a new era of clean energy tech and development. It makes no sense to drill for oil in the harshest environment on Earth, where accidents are inevitable and cleanup improbable. I call on President Obama to acknowledge the public interest by removing the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from the 2017-2022 OCS Leasing Program.
Carl Safina is the endowed professor of nature and humanity at Stony Brook University. His book about the Deepwater Horizon blowout is “A Sea In Flames.”
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