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Obama could still permanently protect the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Here’s how.

Environmentalists are cheering the Obama administration’s new five-year plan for offshore drilling, with some major reservations.

The plan, released on Friday, puts most of most of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to oil and gas drilling for the next five years — but climate hawks wanted it to go further, protecting all of the Arctic. And now, with a very different president about to assume office, green groups are calling on President Obama to make those protections permanent.

The Department of Interior’s plan blocks the sale of new leases for offshore drilling in sensitive areas of the Arctic, including the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska, and in waters along the Atlantic coast. But it allows for some limited leasing in the Cook Inlet off Alaska.

Although the plan is supposed to govern offshore leasing until 2022, it could be unraveled by President-elect Donald Trump, who promised a dramatic expansion of oil and gas drilling during his campaign. Under a Trump administration, the Interior Department could revise its five-year plan and open these areas to extraction within a few years.

That gives added urgency to hopes that President Obama will protect the Atlantic and Arctic coasts from drilling for good through an executive action. Experts argue that the risks of offshore drilling are too high and that to prevent catastrophic climate change some significant reserves of oil and gas will have to stay in the ground.

Environmental advocates say they plan on stepping up pressure on the White House to act in the weeks ahead.

“With Trump threatening to return to the days of ‘drill, baby, drill,’ President Obama should be doing everything in his power to secure our public lands and waters, climate, and communities from the significant and irreversible dangers of fossil fuel development,” says Marissa Knodel, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth, via email.

Putting off-shore areas off-limits to drilling is not the same as naming a national monument, but it’s similar in that it uses a presidential power outside the normal rule-making process. To repeal permanent protection, Congress would need to change the underlying law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or pass stand-alone legislation.

“The president has clear executive authority to provide the Arctic and Atlantic coasts the permanent protection that they richly deserve, that the public would support, and that the climate science says is necessary,” says Franz Matzner, director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s something a host of voices across the country are still calling for.”

Obama has already demonstrated that he can be moved to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Stopping leasing in Chukchi and Beaufort was a response to strong grassroots lobbying earlier this year. Obama also stopped the Keystone XL oil pipeline in response to activists’ campaigns.

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Obama could still permanently protect the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Here’s how.

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We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 21, 2014

Mother Jones

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Marines with Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF), Headquarters & Headquarters Squadron, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, conduct monthly fuel burn training aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, May 16, 2014. ARFF conducts monthly fuel burns to ensure all Marines are competent in their occupational specialty and able to be called upon at a moments notice. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Aneshea S. Yee/Released)


We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 21, 2014

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Accidents? What accidents? Shell’s Arctic drillers are ready to roll again

Accidents? What accidents? Shell’s Arctic drillers are ready to roll again


OK, so last year was a nightmare for the officials at Shell charged with figuring out how to plunder the Arctic for oil. Shell gets that. Both of the company’s exploratory oil rigs in the region were damaged in accidents, wells were abandoned, a vice president lost his job, and the Obama administration prevented the company from resuming its Arctic work this year.

But Shell is delighted to announce that its problems have largely been fixed and it’s ready to return to some American-controlled Arctic waters next year. From E&E Publishing:

In a teleconference with energy analysts, Shell Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said the company will submit an exploration plan for the Chukchi “in the next few weeks.” Shell officials added, however, that the company has not yet reached a final decision on drilling.

Although Shell is moving forward in the Chukchi [the waters just north of the Bering Strait, and to the west of the more northerly Beaufort Sea], the company is postponing its Beaufort Sea operations for the foreseeable future.

Henry said the company also expects to abandon its battered drill rig the Kulluk and will take a write-off “of a few hundred million in the fourth quarter” of this year if the rig is scrapped.

Shell is taking a renewed look at Alaska a year after the company spent more than $5 billion in an unsuccessful campaign to explore in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. …

Despite last year’s problems, Henry said the company is eager to gauge the size of the oil reserves on its Chukchi leases. The Interior Department estimates that the region could hold 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Shell wants us to know that everything will probably be peachy, but Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris isn’t ready to buy the oil-industry promises:

Before Shell starts boasting about its new plans for the drilling in the Arctic Ocean, the company should explain why it couldn’t safely conduct its operations under last year’s plans. We’ve already watched Shell lose control of two different drill rigs in less than a year, with one of them catching fire and the other one running aground off the coast of Alaska. The federal government chastised Shell earlier this year that it needed to answer ‘serious questions regarding its ability to operate safely and responsibly in the challenging and unpredictable conditions’ of the Arctic Ocean. We’re still waiting for those answers. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is just too risky and no company has figured out how to respond to an oil spill in icy waters.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would also take us in the wrong direction when it comes to addressing the challenges of climate change … The president can make a generational commitment to take action against the devastating effects of climate change by leaving the oil in the ground and preventing oil drilling in the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Time will tell whether the Obama administration sides with hopeful Shell officials or with skeptical environmentalists.

Shell Plans to Drill in The Arctic in 2014, Earthjustice
Offshore drilling: Shell will return to Arctic in 2014, E&E Publishing

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

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Accidents? What accidents? Shell’s Arctic drillers are ready to roll again

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Shell to ‘pause’ Arctic drilling in 2013

Shell to ‘pause’ Arctic drilling in 2013

After an epic string of screw-ups, Shell is pulling way back on its plan to conquer the far north frontier and drill the ever-loving hell out of it. Pause, baby, pause!


Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig, which the company

ran aground in Alaska

in December.

Shell has spent more than $4.5 billion in its quest for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north coast of Alaska and so far has nothing to show for it but a series of embarrassing mishaps.

“Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012,” Marvin Odum, director of Shell’s “Upstream Americas” operations, said in a statement.

The company pledges that it isn’t giving up on its quest for Arctic oil: “Alaska remains an area with high potential for Shell over the long term, and the company is committed to drill there again in the future. If exploration proves successful, resources there would take years to develop.”

But at least for now: Congratulations, Alaska!

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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