Human rights advocate Bianca Jagger. (photo: Martin Pope)
15 September 15
President Obama’s approval of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling has tarnished his environmental legacy.
resident Obama is the first incumbent US President to cross the Arctic Circle. The purpose of his expedition was to “witness first-hand the impact of climate change on the region” and to announce new measures to address it. Speaking at the Glacier climate summit in Anchorage Obama recognised the role of the US “in creating this problem.” He also stated “we embrace our responsibility to help solve it” because failure to do so will “condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.” Yet less than one month ago his administration gave the green light to Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic.
President Obama must know that it is impossible to protect the Arctic while allowing Shell to drill for oil 70 miles off the coast of Alaska. He cannot have it both ways. His policies and proclamations are irreconcilable.
During his three-day excursion to the Arctic Circle he climbed a receding glacier, saw the melting Alaskan permafrost, met vulnerable coastal communities and addressed the Glacier climate summit.
On the first day of his trip Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with Alaskan Natives. At the Glacier summit he urged fellow world leaders to reach an agreement at the UNFCCC Paris climate summit, COP21 in December that “protects the one planet … while we still can”.
On day two Obama hiked the Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. He knowsthe Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the US and he is aware that the Exit Glacierhas receded more than a mile since the start of the industrial revolution, with the rate of melting accelerating in the last few decades. He called the glacier “as good of a signpost as any when it comes to the impacts of climate change” and said he wanted his grandchildren to be able to see it one day. If President Obama really means this, how can he justify his approval of Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic?
On the third day of his trip Obama met with local fishermen and families and attended a cultural performance by the children of Dillingham Middle School. The President joined the children in their last dance, saying: “I’ve been practising.” He visited Kotzebue’s sea wall to see the effects of rising sea levels and the devastating impact of increased storm severity. President Obama must know that even if the world agrees to keep temperature rises to 2 degree Celsius, sea levels, due to the melting of the ice, may still rise by 20 feet (6 metres) by 2100.
In his weekly address on 29th August Obama tried to defend his approval of Shell’s Arctic drilling. He said that Americans “are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters” and he had the audacity to say “that’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”
President Obama must know that no safeguards or standards will be enough to prevent an oil spill. According to a February 2015 report by his Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (Alaska OCS Region) drilling in the Arctic has a 75% chance of a spill of more than 1,000 barrels of oil.
How can President Obama trust Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic when during their last attempt in 2012 their Kulluk rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska, due to what the US Coast Guard called Shell’s “inadequate assessment and management of risks“. Arctic oil drilling is a dangerous and high-risk enterprise. Shell do not have an adequate extraction and spill response infrastructure. When they first attempted to drill in 2012, their response plan prepared for a worst-case oil spill of 25,000 barrels released per day for 30 days. In the same report Shell also made the ludicrous promise to recover 95% of a spill before oil reaches the shoreline despite the industry having recovery percentages of around only 10%, a figure which includes spills in more favourable clean up conditions than the Arctic. A freedom of information request revealed that both of Shell’s drilling rigs currently in the Arctic had operational failings. Basic fire drills and abandon ship drills were “botched”, indicating the crew and equipment were not prepared. The decision to drill for oil in the Arctic is reckless and irresponsible even for Shell’s shareholders. The company is only indemnified for $1.15bn per incident, which means that a spill could be followed by a huge asset sale to cover financial liabilities, similar to the one BP had in 2010. A senior official at a Canadian firm that specialises in oil-spill response admitted that “there is really no solution or method today that we’re aware of that can actually recover [spilled] oil from the Arctic.”
To approve Shell’s Arctic gamble President Obama should have assessed the oil industry’s record. He must be aware that the oil industry has proved unable to operate safely in the Arctic and that any spill could devastate the lives of the four million people who live there and the hundreds of unique species of fish, birds and mammals. According to the Center for Biodiversity all life is under threat in the Arctic, from plankton to great whales, including: reindeer, the Arctic fox, the Pacific Walrus, the gray, beluga and bowhead whales, the spectacled eider and ivory gulls.
Cleaning up after oil spills is always a difficult and traumatic task. The Arctic Ocean presents additional problems. The Ocean is covered by ice for eight to nine months of the year, with almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months. Booms and dispersants are less effective because petroleum sticks to ice and the cold temperatures mean there are no microbes present to break down leaked oil. According to WWF there is no ability to respond to a spill for 7-8 months a year and only a 44-46% ability to respond in favourable conditions. Additional spill support may come from the Coast Guard, but the nearest base is 950 miles away. According to Alexander Horne, Professor Emeritus of Ecological Engineering at Berkeley, an oil spill in the Arctic could have more long-term effects than BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster where 11 people died, 17 were injured, 16,000 miles of coastline were affected, and more than 210 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. Despite these overwhelming arguments, Ann Pickard head of Shell Arctic made the preposterous claim to be able to have a response in place, including a containment dome, capping stack, and surface booms, within 60 minutes of an accident.
The President must know that Shell’s Arctic oil drilling will cause increased greenhouse gas emissions and catastrophic climate change. As people throughout the world are pleading “the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation.“
Al Gore described Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea as “insane” and called for a ban on all oil and gas activity in the Arctic. NGOs and environmental groups were quick to highlight Obama’s paradoxical environmental message, with Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity saying: “It’s perplexing and depressing to hear President Obama say he wants to fix climate change but then approve Arctic drilling. It’s like a doctor diagnosing a patient but then refusing to write a prescription”. Even Hilary Clinton, President Obama’s hopeful successor stated, “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.” Ahead of COP21 this sends a terrible signal to the world, that window dressing is all we can expect from the US President at this critical Climate Summit.
The Arctic is often referred to as the ‘canary in the coalmine‘ for climate change. It is our early-warning system. The canary is in bad shape. Arctic ice is melting at a record rate. This year’s seasonal minimum is set to be the third or fourth lowest on record, with the four lowest ice coverages occurring since 2007. As the ice retreats there are fewer reflective surfaces to reflect sunlight and the tundra and water that remain when the ice has melted absorbs more heat, causing further warming and making more ice disappear. In a few years, the children of Dillingham Middle School, who the President danced with on his recent visit, will not recognise their home.
Warmer temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These permanently frozen lands make up as much as 24% of the northern hemisphere land mass and their emission could double the amount of carbon dioxidein the atmosphere. According to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report methane is far more potent that carbon dioxide, 21 times more potent on a 100-year scale, and 72 times on a 20-year scale.
Melting of the Arctic sea ice is a global threat that could disrupt major ocean circulation patterns and affect the world’s climate. This would have severe consequences throughout the world affecting food production, causing price increases and food shortages.
Oceans and currents that move waters around the world help regulate the Earth’s temperature. El Niño and La Niña weather systems that bring hotter or cooler weather are part of the larger Pacific decadal oscillation system that delivers periods of warmer weather or cooler weather, over decades. This system is currently in a cooling phase, which is “dampening” the rise of global average surface temperature. According to a study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this respite is only temporary. After the hiatus will follow a period of accelerated global warming unless urgent action is taken to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions.
Rising sea levels will endanger between 147 and 216 million people, particularly those in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives as well as people in Tokyo, Shanghai, New York and London. According to UNEP a melting Arctic will result in “more intense and longer periods of rainfall and drought, summer heat waves and cold snaps in winter“.
Americans have already experienced the impacts of climate change. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina, one of the most deadly and damaging hurricanes to hit the country, flooded 80% of New Orleans, causing the deaths of 1,833 people and forcing 273,000 people to seek disaster relief. In 2011 and 2012 the Midwest experienced the worst droughts for 50 years, and in 2014 New York was plunged into chaos by record breaking rains and snowstorms.
According to the IPCC climate change will increase droughts and floods to the USA, declining water quality, and increased animal and plant mortality. Risk of wildfires has already increased. 2011 and 2012 saw near-record numbers of fires. In 2012 an area the size of the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined was set ablaze. The Whitehouse has reported that climate and weather disasters cost the country more than $100bn in 2012 alone. Air pollution, extreme weather events, and diseases carried by food, water, and insects all bring health risks. There is far more to come. Florida will see further rises in sea level. California will experience further droughts.
The President is right to say, “This is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore. This is a problem now. It has serious implications for the way we live right now.” Obama has now seen the impacts of climate change during his visit to the Arctic. He must know that to prevent catastrophic climate change 88% of the world’s known coal reserves, 52% of gas and 35% of oil must be left untouched. Now is the time for him to choose his side and rescind Shell’s permit to drill for oil in the Arctic.
According to the Earth League, which includes Lord Nicholas Stern, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber advisor to Angela Merkel and Pope Francis, and US economist Jeffrey Sachs, three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if average global warming is not to breach a rise of 2 degrees Celsius. In their statement, released on 22nd April 2015 to coincide with Earth Day, they warn that failure to leave oil in the soil and coal in the ground would bring a 1 in 10 risk of going beyond 6°C by 2100, a “high risk of disaster” that would be “equivalent of tolerating about 10,000 airplane crashes every day worldwide.”
When he was elected President Obama promised to deliver a “new era of responsibility” and to “roll back the spectre of a warming planet”. Millions of people around the world including me believed in him and his vision.
At the UNFCCC climate summit in Copenhagen, COP15, President Obama proved to be a galvanising force. Attended by 120 Heads of State, COP15 was the largest gathering of its kind, apart from the annual UN General Assembly in New York. The conference was the focus of unprecedented public and media attention but the President’s leadership failed and the Copenhagen Accord that resulted was a shameful compromise. Obama missed that opportunity to set the world on the right path to avoiding catastrophic climate change. At this point he was a President in his first year in office, very aware that Congress could override his pledges. Now he only has months left.
When COP21 takes place in Paris at the end of 2015, six years will have passed since Copenhagen. COP21 is Obama’s last chance to define his environmental legacy.
Obama’s Environmental Legacy
To date, what is President Obama’s environmental legacy? He has implemented policies that reduce fossil fuel demand: a meaningful bilateral agreement with China to cut emissions where the US agreed to cut carbon emissions 26-28% by 2025, relative to 2005 levels, efficiency standards for road vehicles and aircraft, and CO2 regulations for new power plants. However he has failed to tackle the supply side of fossil fuel, doing little to halt the rampant determination of coal, oil, and natural gas corporations to extract all the resources they can. In July 2014 Obama’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opened up the Eastern seaboard, from Florida to Delaware, for oil and natural gas exploration. The Whitehouse boasts that it has opened up 59 million acres for oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and has increased leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land.
President Obama did veto the Keystone XL pipeline but now he has given licence to Shell to drill in the Arctic. This will be the mortal sin of his administration.
In his acceptance speech in 2008 President Obama pledged to make the “planet in peril” one of his top three priorities. In his State of the Union address in 2014 Obama said, “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” But has President Obama really done all he could?
On 3rd August President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, an unprecedented initiative that promises to revolutionise power plant emissions, the USA’s largest source of pollution. The Plan is an ambitious pledge to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the nation’s power plants by 32% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.
President Obama introduced the Plan as “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change“. The Plan was well received: Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change called the Plan “a very important announcement by President Obama which will reinforce the credibility of the commitment by the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalised… It shows the determination of the world’s richest country to maintain better economic growth while also cutting greenhouse gas pollution.”
The Editorial Board of the New York Times said the Plan was “unquestionably the most important step the administration has taken in the fight against climate change” and Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club went further calling it “the most significant single action any president has ever taken.”
President Obama recognised that “[climate change] is one of those rare issues – because of its magnitude, because of its scope – that if we don’t get it right we may not be able to reverse it and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently. There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.” Indeed there is, and all the scientific evidence indicates that we are nearly past the point of no return.
In announcing the Clean Power Plan Obama quoted Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” On hearing Obama introduce the Plan my hopes for COP21 were lifted. Unfortunately, my optimism didn’t last long – the Plan sets achievable goals and contains several concessions.
Power plants produce a third of the USA’s total domestic carbon dioxide emissions. Under Obama’s Plan the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives each state a goal for cutting power-plant emissions. States decide for themselves how to achieve this target. They can switch from coal to natural gas or nuclear, expand their generation of renewable energy or increase energy efficiency. All states must submit their plans by 2016-2018, start making reductions by 2022 at the latest, and continue reducing emissions through to 2030.
This all sounds very promising. However under the original version of the Clean Power Plan States did not have this two-year grace period before they had to start reducing emissions. The two-year grace period would allow them to burn fossil fuels for two more years. During this time, carbon dioxide concentrations will continue to rise and the impacts of climate change will continue to be felt across the world. This concession is not just unnecessary but reckless. As Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists confirms, many “states are already on track to cut their emissions through actions they’ve put in place, including state renewable energy and energy efficiency standards and coal plant retirements.”
The Plan is ambitious by the standards of America’s climate commitments to date but conservative in terms of the CO2 reduction targets in line with scientific estimates required to avoid catastrophic climate change. Coal – the dirty industry most impacted by the President’s Plan – is already a steadily declining contributor to the country’s electricity production. According to Politico, increased electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources and energy efficiency initiatives mean the USA has already met the halfway point of the goal set by the Clean Power Plan. The Plan could have gone much further.
One of the most positive aspects of the Plan is its promise of 30% more renewable energy generation by 2030. But this figure is testament to the expansion of the renewable energy market, which is reliant on the federal production tax credit (PTC) incentive. Favourable conditions for solar and wind energy have enabled the pledges of the draft Plan to be increased. According to Rob Gramlich of the American Wind Energy Association the current boom requires the PTC subsidy. The draft Plan, formulated prior to the boom estimated that renewable energy would only make up 22% of the market by 2030.
President Obama said the Clean Power Plan is, “the biggest, most important step the USA has ever taken to combat climate change”. He is right but more, much more, is required if we are to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius.
To put the Plan’s goals in perspective, last week California passed legislation that will see the State reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. Tim O’Connor, Director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund said, “This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate.”
In response to the President’s announcement of the Plan Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth said, “Obama’s climate initiative is politically significant, but falls way short of what scientists say is required to tackle catastrophic climate change. In the face of huge US vested interests that oppose any measures on climate change, the President’s plan at least pushes the issue up the agenda…. [T]hese measures are just a drop in the ocean, when a sea change in energy policy is what’s desperately required. It would have been more significant if the President said no to drilling in the Arctic, and stopped his support for new fossil fuels such as fracking and tar sands.”
350.org spokesman Jamie Henn agreed that more is required. Reducing the emissions of power plants is not enough by itself: “Taking on King Coal is the easy part … It’s standing up to Big Oil that will require real courage. That’s why decisions on things like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and Arctic drilling are so important — they’re the true test of climate leadership for this and any future presidents.”
Hilary Clinton has promised – if elected as President – to produce 33% of America’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027. This is an additional 7% to what Obama has promised by 2030. Clinton has also vowed to install half a billion solar panels by 2020. This is seven times the number of panels currently being built and would produce enough energy to power every home in America within 10 years. Clinton said, “I personally believe climate change is a challenge of such magnitude and urgency that we need a president who will set ambitious goals”.
Indeed, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and some of his environmental policies have set ambitious goals, and his expedition to the Arctic gave us reasons for optimism. Unfortunately, his decision to give the green light to Shell to drill in the Arctic has irreparably undermined his environmental legacy. I had hoped for more from President Obama.
We all know it is not the sole responsibility of President Obama and the USA to singlehandedly prevent catastrophic climate change but the international community is in dire need of leadership if member states are to achieve a meaningful agreement in Paris.
Soon after President Obama took up office, in a 2009 speech on climate change he said, “Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it – boldly, swiftly, and together – we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.”
COP21 is the President’s last chance to put his climate change legacy back on track.
We are all hoping that when COP21 takes place in Paris in December President Obama and world leaders will bring substantial commitments to the table, to achieve a global, binding climate agreement to drastically reduce emissions and slow the perilous warming of the planet. If they fail COP21 will be an appalling abdication of responsibility.