U.S. Senator Announces "Stop Arctic Drilling" Bill

Jeff Merkley

Published Jul 16, 2015 7:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley has announced the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act of 2015, a major piece of legislation to stop offshore Arctic drilling. The legislation would prevent any new or renewed leases for the exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas or any other mineral in the Arctic planning area.

"A spill in the Arctic would be an environmental catastrophe of extraordinary proportions – and such a spill is inevitable if drilling proceeds," said Merkley. "The ecosystem in the Arctic is too fragile and the ability to respond to a spill in this region is nonexistent. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is the height of irresponsibility. We need to put it off limits, permanently."

The Department of Interior estimates that there is a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill exceeding 42,000 gallons of oil should drilling leases in the Arctic be developed, says Merkley. To date, there has not been a successful oil and gas operation in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic region is home to one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems, extreme and treacherous conditions, and severely limited capacity to respond to an oil spill or accident.

In 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded and began to sink, the nearest Coast Guard station was approximately 132 air miles away in New Orleans. In contrast, current proposals by Shell Oil Company to drill in the Chukchi Sea are over 900 air miles from the nearest Coast Guard station in Kodiak and over 1,200 miles from the nearest deep-water port in Dutch Harbor. The Gulf has one of the most comprehensive search and rescue infrastructures in North America, yet Deepwater Horizon dumped an estimated 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf over 87 days.

The Arctic is home to endangered species such as bowhead whales, polar bears and ringed seals, as well as invaluable and fragile ecosystems that are critical to fisheries, migratory birds, indigenous populations and subsistence hunters. Opening development on a new fossil fuel reservoir in the Arctic not only puts the natural resources, ecosystems, and the dependent communities at risk, it also contradicts the President’s Climate Action Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce climate change, says Merkley.

In June, Merkley led a group of Senators in authoring a letter to President Obama urging the Administration to rescind Shell Oil Company’s conditional Exploration Permit in the Chukchi Sea. Merkley wrote that new lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean are an unnecessary risk that threatens local communities, fragile ecosystems and efforts at climate change mitigation.

Friends of the Earth Climate Campaigner Marissa Knodel issued the following response: “President Obama should take a lesson in climate leadership from Senator Merkley. The “Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act” is exactly what we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption and to protect the people and wildlife that call the Arctic Ocean home. 

“As the bill states, the Arctic Ocean should be managed in the best interests of the American people, which includes keeping fossil fuels in the ground. To best serve those interests and stay true to his climate legacy, President Obama must keep the Arctic Ocean off limits to Big Oil’s toxic greed.”

Shell has tried to pre-empt some of the environmental concerns about oil spills with information and a video about their spill response capabilities. Shell says its onsite oil spill response assets would be deployed within an hour. This response capability has been inspected by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Additionally, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, acknowledge the need to address climate change, but see the move away from oil and gas as a gradual transition.

Van Beurden recently stated his position: “What the global energy system is experiencing – what it needs to undergo – is a transition from the traditional model based on oil and coal to a progressively cleaner, less carbon-intensive model. And that new configuration needs to be characterized by a greater share of natural gas and renewables – and a key role for carbon capture and storage…

“While we can probably all agree that an energy transition is happening, some sectors will be harder to decarbonize than others. In the case of oil’s role in transport, for example, that process will take decades.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).

A PDF of the bill is available here.