Imagine, for just a moment, the following scenario:
The year is 2019 — two years into the first term of President Scott Walker. The Royal Dutch Shell corporation proposes a massive expansion of its existing drilling operation in the Arctic Ocean. Shell officials note that there have been no major accidents since their first exploratory wells became operational, and that doing so will provide a big boost to an American economy sliding into recession.
President Walker, whose base is furious that he has only eliminated half of all federal food stamp and welfare programs, jumps into action. He orders Interior Department Secretary Donald Trump to immediately approve the project. Liberals are aghast. Environmentalists threaten blockades. Bill McKibben again promises the biggest climate march in history, this time with even more protest signs.
Conservatives defend their leader by pointing to a decision made by former President Barack Obama in May 2015. Even that great fighter of climate change, they accurately say, sanctioned Arctic drilling. Republicans accuse the few liberals in Congress who do speak out as being leftist demagogues. “How could Arctic drilling be a game-changer for so-called ‘climate change,’” George Will smugly snorts in a column, “if even a green socialist like Obama approved it?”
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The above scenario, I think, reflects the greatest danger in the Obama administration’s decision last week to grant conditional authorization to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off of northwest Alaska: The potential for a doubling down on natural gas production at the time we most need to be moving in new directions.
On its face, the White House’s decision changes relatively little in the global fight against climate change. Right now, Shell is only seeking to construct up to six exploratory wells. The approval is not yet final, and Shell could face other regulatory hurdles. The Wall Street Journal notes that it could take years between a commercial discovery of oil in the Arctic and its production. And then there’s the fact that the Obama administration has indeed made 9.8 million acres north of Alaska off-limits to future oil and gas leasing.
If you were only considering these factors, you could be forgiven for thinking environmentalists’ dire warnings are overstated. You might also, with a little bit of Googling, look askance at the greens’ predictions of an imminent oil spill: Greenpeace, The Nation and several others have claimed that the government admits there’s a 75 percent chance of a major spill. That projection, however, is flatly refuted by the government itself, and it’s clear that their research on the question has been widely misinterpreted.
But forget all that. What’s truly worrisome, and devastatingly so, is that Obama has set a precedent for opening up a massive new frontier in gas production — one that could make our already bewildering carbon emissions math into an arithmetic impossibility.
Here’s why: The Arctic region is believed to contain 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, a report by the Center for American Progress reports. Meanwhile, if we have any chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (which itself would be disastrous), we have to leave more than two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground, according to the International Energy Agency. What happens to the possibility of global cooperation on climate change if a Republican administration takes Obama’s approval of Arctic drilling to its logical conclusion?
In defense of his decision, President Obama said that Arctic drilling could play a role in the “transition process” to a world world without fossil fuels — and that it’s better to get it domestically than from abroad. Nonsense. Gas prices are falling amid a massive boom in domestic natural gas production; our dependence on foreign gas is dropping like a rock. This is the president’s proclivity toward even-handedness at its worst.
Earlier this month, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released a remarkable 8-page "Environmental Impact Statement" about Shell’s proposed project. Infuriatingly, the document refuses to say anything about the potential impacts of future or expanded Arctic drilling; the term "climate change" is not mentioned once. “The degree to which the Proposed Action may establish a precedent for future actions or represent a decision in principle about a future consideration, does not render the potential impact significant,” the report says in its inscrutable bureaucratic tone.
The document then ticks through the oh-so-many ways the company’s exploratory wells wouldn’t have any environmental impact at all: Sea otters, for instance, would probably be OK. And air traffic and whaling camps should be relatively undisturbed. So at least there’s that.