Broad Coalition of Environmental Groups Working to Stop Oil Drilling in the Arctic

Posted April 1, 2015

MP3 Interview with Cassady Sharp, media officer with Greenpeace USA, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Many environmental activists believe President Obama has been schizophrenic in his approach to climate change, calling for reductions in carbon pollution from vehicles and power plants on one hand, and on the other, calling for an "all of the above" energy strategy that includes massive exploitation of oil and gas.

A similar pattern can be seen in the White House policy towards the Arctic, where Obama has called for protection of certain areas while allowing drilling for oil in others. Over the next 30 days, the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will perform an environmental assessment of the Shell Oil company’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, which is rich in both oil reserves and wildlife diversity.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Cassady Sharp, media officer with Greenpeace USA, the group which is leading a campaign to stop all drilling in the Arctic. She maintains that research has shown that if all recoverable oil using current technology were to be extracted from the entire Arctic region, not just in the U.S., it would provide just five years of oil supply to U.S. consumers at current rates. Here, she discusses the coalition of groups that are fighting to stop oil drilling in the Arctic’s pristine ecosystem, which are now accessible for drilling in many new areas due to global warming having opened up the frozen seas.

CASSADY SHARP: What President Obama and his administration basically did was protect parts of the Arctic on Sunday and then turn around and auction it off to the highest bidder on Tuesday. President Obama had protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which then Congress has to approve, so protected 9.8 million acres of the Arctic Ocean – which seems like quite a lot and we were very happy to hear that, as were other environmental organizations. However, a couple days later, he also opened up several Atlantic coast drilling leases and also opened up major parts of the Alaskan Arctic to drilling as well. You can't really protect some parts of the Arctic and then open up other parts for drilling, because those paper boundaries are not going to stop wildlife from wandering in to drilling spots.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What can President Obama do without Congress to protect the Arctic? Like, can he declare some or all of the Arctic seas that are part of U.S. territory to be a marine sanctuary with no drilling allowed?

CASSADY SHARP: So, President Obama right now and his administration – and that includes the Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is an agency of the Department of the Interior – all the decisions on whether or not to allow oil companies to drill there really rests on them. Congress does not have a lot of power there at all. So what they can do, any minute now, is they could choose to cancel Shell's lease to drill in the Chukchi Sea. That would be a major step forward, not only to send a message to companies like Shell that these projects can't go forward if we're to avoid catastrophic climate change, but it would mean a lot that the half a million comments that were sent in to the administration to cancel these leases were actually listened to.

Just this week, the U.S. plans to submit a pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to nearly 30 percent as part of the global treaty leading up to the Paris climate talks. So if he does that this week, that's great news. But then in the same week to approve a company like Shell to go and drill in the Arctic, which would not only lead to a devastating oil spill, but global scientists have also said we cannot burn Arctic oil if we're going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. So this is something he actually can do is say no to Shell. He can certainly do things like protect the ANWR, but that typically goes through Congress to approve, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski is not wild about that protection. She is the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So Shell has had several disastrous attempts to drill in the Arctic, and they want to try again. Any other oil companies following suit?

CASSADY SHARP: Shell is the only company that has plans to drill, that has openly said they want to drill and act on the leases they have bought. Other companies are waiting to see. They are basically the guinea pigs to go up there. They're waiting to see if they (Shell) are successful. When they went to drill in 2012, it was disaster after disaster after disaster. Two of their rigs nearly ran aground. The Kolluk did run aground, which is one of their rigs that they used in 2012, so they really are the only company that's acting on any of their leases. They've spent more than $6 billion so far on the Arctic drilling project with really nothing to show for it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I've heard this effort to stop Arctic drilling described like the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, that if it's approved it will be game over for the climate. Is Greenpeace part of any coalition that's fighting Arctic drilling in various ways, beyond just having your boats following Shell around the Arctic?

CASSADY SHARP: Yeah, that's actually the most exciting part and we saw this happen with Keystone, which is why Arctic drilling is poised to become the next Keystone moment, not just from a symbolic standpoint but from a standpoint that this project cannot go forward, and we see tons of organizations really taking this issue and prioritizing it. So just this year, for instance, Greenpeace has joined Sierra Club, Alaska Wilderness League, Oceana, Credo, Avaaz, the list goes on, to submit more than half a million comments asking the Obama administration to cancel these leases.

But where we're really seeing a lot of excitement now, too, is in Seattle, where the Port Commission of Seattle ended up signing a lease with Shell to house their Arctic drilling fleet – which we like to call the Arctic Destroyers – to stay at Terminal 5 in Seattle. So we're seeing an amazing movement in Seattle right now, tons of groups – labor groups, environmental groups – saying, not only do we not want Shell's drilling fleet in Seattle (they signed a two-year lease), we are opposed to Arctic drilling completely. And so there's a lot of local groups joining national groups and global groups like Greenpeace and 350.org and Rising Tide and some other local groups that focus on accountability of the Port Commission to really stand up to that lease and to say, "We don't want Shell here" and we don't want Arctic drilling to go forward. So we're working on multiple fronts right now. We have our ship, the Esperanza, in the Pacific Ocean following Shell's drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, which is heading north towards Seattle. And they're keeping a watch on them; they're trailing them through the ocean, so we're working on that front. And we're also working in Seattle. And we're also working in D.C., with national organizations to keep up with every step of the regulatory process and taking part in comment periods and letting President Obama know this is not something we want to see move forward.

For more information on Greenpeace USA, visit greenpeace.org.

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