Anti-Arctica

Seizing on high gasoline prices as an excuse, the Republican House majority passed three bills this month that would dramatically expand oil companies' access to every possible oil reserve on land and at sea. Their colleagues in the Senate, who are attempting to move those bills in the upper chamber, voted Monday to preserve subsidies for the wildly profitable oil industry, arguing that the tax breaks aid production and thus will help lower prices for consumers.

While President Barack Obama supports expanded oil drilling with reasonable restrictions, Republicans oppose any restrictions. And these bills show the dangers of Obama's centrist, "all of the above" approach to energy policy in which expanded fossil-fuel exploration and clean energy are discussed as equal parts of a whole solution. Drilling is bad for the environment and often the economy, and it gives us very little in return.

Obama has criticized the House's drilling resolutions but hasn't threatened them with a veto; the resolutions are unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate anyway. But in his typical defensive and reactive mode, Obama bought into the false premise that increased drilling is desirable and on Saturday, announced measures to facilitate drilling. He will begin issuing new leases in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, lift a ban on drilling in the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico enacted after the Deepwater Horizon spill last year, and accelerate review of potential drilling off the Atlantic Coast. As The New York Times noted, "It was at least a partial concession to his critics at a time when consumers are paying near-record prices at the gas pump. ... But in fact the policies announced Saturday would not have an immediate effect on supply or prices."

So what effect would it have? Well, a bad one for people and environments near areas that might be affected. The starkest example is what drilling would do to the Arctic Ocean, an extremely fragile ecosystem. "Offshore there are potential impacts just simply by [drilling]," says Chuck Clusen, director of National Parks and Alaska Projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "And there is the low probability, but extremely high impact possibility, of an accidental blowout, which would be just devastating to the Arctic."

Simply preparing to drill there would be bad. Seismic studies used to ascertain if and where oil can be found would generate noise that is unbearable for ocean mammals. In the past, whales that have been subjected to such aggravating noise have been so disoriented that they've beached themselves. (It's not clear whether this behavior is an instinctual response to confusion or actual suicide.) Several whale species migrate through the Arctic Ocean, including the Bowhead, which is not only endangered but also a key source of food for Inuit people.

Then there is the drilling itself. Drilling makes more noise and releases toxic chemicals into the water. Boats that go back and forth between land and the drilling rigs release diesel exhaust, diminishing the air quality of coastal native villages.

Beyond that is the risk of a blowout and massive leak like what happened last year in the Gulf of Mexico. Dealing with such a catastrophe would be much harder in the Arctic because a cleanup would be logistically complicated. For half the year, ice floes fill the Arctic and block access, and the sky is dark all day throughout the late fall and early winter. Fierce, hurricane-velocity winds would dump massive amounts of water on land and ships. And the area where we would drill, the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea Coast off Northern Alaska, is very remote: The nearest Coast Guard station is 1,200 miles away, and there are no ports to dock the equipment needed to cap a leak. If a blowout occurred in September or October, the sea would freeze before the leak could be halted. "The rig would have to stop drilling and head south while the blowout keeps flowing and creates pools of oil under the ice," Clusen says.

The long-term effects of such a disaster are already visible in Alaska's Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 20 years ago. "Today, if you dig down a couple inches on the beach you still find oil," Clusen says. "There are species that still have not returned. The ecosystem is still in tremendous degradation. You had a very prosperous fishing industry that was essentially wiped out."

And Obama hasn't just promised to increase oil exploration in the sensitive Arctic. He would also allow it in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, threatening sensitive wetlands, which provide an essential habitat to migratory birds, river streams, caribou herds, and native groups south of the Arctic Circle that hunt the caribou.

Normally, checkpoints during the process by which oil companies lease the right to drill delay the start of the work but obtain valuable information on potential air pollution levels or risk to local animals. This is precisely what Obama pledges to expedite. "Streamlining means skipping due diligence for the permitting process," Clusen says.

As bad as this all may sound, what the Republicans would do is even worse. H.R. 1231, which the NRDC's director of government affairs, David Goldston, calls "the worst of the of the House bills," would mandate that the Department of the Interior approve plans to drill in the Outer-Continental Shelf. The Obama administration complained the bill would mandate allowing drilling along the East Coast and off the coast of California without giving states and local citizens a chance to comment. In other words, the environmental impact, the effects on other local businesses such as fishing, and the concerns of residents would be ignored. Overall, Republicans would make the process of approving drilling leases less secure than it was before the Deepwater Horizon spill. In many areas, such as the Arctic, the ecological damage from such a spill would be even worse than in the Gulf.

And what would all of this bring in return? Minimal impact on oil prices in the long term, none at all in the short term, and only a marginal effect on our trade imbalance regarding oil. But give the Republicans credit: By staking out an extreme position and vociferously advocating for it, they've moved the center -- and the centrist president -- toward them.

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