The Debate Over Arctic Drilling Continues On Capitol Hill

On July 16, 2015, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) released the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act of 2015, a.k.a. S. 1794. This bill would prevent any new or renewed leases for the exploration, development or production of oil, natural gas or any other mineral in the Arctic Ocean.

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.

However, while Sen. Merkley and others advocate for the Arctic Ocean’s future, Shell has begun drilling in the Chukchi Sea and another bill (the Offshore Production and Energizing National Security Act of 2015 – or OPENS Act) is another give away to Big Oil. Introduced in late July, the OPENS Act would mandate new leasing in the Arctic Ocean and would facilitate lease extensions for existing leases. Shell and other oil companies currently hold leases in the Beaufort Sea that expire in 2017, and in the Chukchi Sea that expire in 2020. Shell believes extensions are a necessity because, lo and behold, drilling in the Arctic is hard. (What, you mean drilling in frigid arctic waters in the dark during a very short drilling season in waters that haven’t been properly mapped since the 1930s is hard? Who tried to tell you that over and over?)

Last week the bill cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 12-10 vote, split exactly on party lines. Opposition from all the Democrats on the committee is an important first step to stop this egregious legislation.

As I sat there agreeing with the Democratic opposition, I still couldn’t help wanting to stand up and say: “Why is this Congress only in favor of Big Oil’s interest? What about the walruses? What about the Arctic wildlife that are already in trouble due to climate change? What about the Alaska Natives who rely on the Arctic Ocean and its resources to maintain their culture and subsistence lifestyle? What about leaving untapped fossil fuel resources in the ground if we have any chance of achieving a safe climate future?”

The OPENS Act is moving forward – a truly unfortunate development – and we will work with Democratic leaders to ensure future opposition to this bill. The good news is that in Senator Jeff Merkley the Arctic Ocean has a strong champion, and we can all do our part by telling our Senators to support Senator Merkley’s Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act.