America’s Arctic is an extraordinary place, and it has fired my imagination since I first conducted field research in coastal northwest Alaska in 1977. Although indigenous people have occupied and influenced Alaska’s coast for millennia, the Arctic coastal and marine ecosystem is still wild, pristine and productive. There is still largely a full complement of native fish and wildlife that not only persist, but thrive in the Arctic alongside human communities with vibrant cultures.
Since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 however, our attempts to access this energy have transformed the landscape of the central Arctic and prompted many changes for the people who live and work, study and recreate in the region. And the pace of change is only accelerating.
“Shell screwed up in 2012.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was bluntly accurate when speaking about Shell’s calamitous Arctic drilling program today.
The Interior Department’s new high-level, 60-day review – while not comprehensive – calls attention to serious shortcomings in Shell’s 2012 effort and recommends a more thorough, integrated approach to planning and oversight before deciding on whether to approve future Arctic drilling operations.
The review confirms what we already knew: that Shell simply was not ready to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. It also demonstrates that federal agencies need to do a better job holding the oil industry accountable and setting higher standards for safety and environmental protection.
In recent years, federal budgetary concerns have loomed over almost every legislative battle in Congress. However, the sequestration that began on March 1st presents a uniquely ominous challenge by imposing drastic, across the board cuts on almost every government program. With an ongoing debate on how to avoid the full implementation of the sweeping cuts, here are some impacts that such a steep drop in federal funding could have on marine conservation and ocean ecosystems.
The cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in particular could present significant harm to longstanding ocean conservation programs. In an immediate sense, they will force NOAA to furlough, or temporarily put on unpaid leave, up to 2,600 agency employees; amounting to almost 20% of the agency’s workforce. Furthermore, NOAA may need to cut 1,400 existing contractor jobs, while leaving an additional 2,700 positions unfilled.
These workforce reductions would leave NOAA tremendously understaffed to implement items like fishery stock assessments, which are essential to support effective fisheries management and the fishing industry at large. As fishermen throughout the nation rely on the accurate reports of NOAA scientists to avoid overfishing, this isn’t only an issue for marine ecosystems, but is a jobs issue that will negatively impact families nationwide.
1. She has demonstrated a professional commitment to conservation in the past.
Worth a read, our own Sarah van Schageninterviewed Jewell for Grist.org in 2007 about REI’s sustainability efforts and how she incorporates outdoor recreation and conservation into her own life. She understands what it takes to make a greener company and knows what the government can do to make that easier.
2. She has demonstrated a personal commitment to conservation and the outdoors.
There’s already chatter about Jewell’s experience with oil and gas — but it’s important to note she wasn’t a lobbyist, executive or policy expert, she was an engineer. That means she’s likely to have an understanding of the practical challenges that make drilling in remote areas, like the Arctic, so risky and to understand the importance of relying on science to inform decision-making. This is important because right now we are urging the Interior Department to reconsider Shell’s attempts to drill in the Arctic given the cavalcade of mishaps they’ve experienced in the past year.
There is a lot that the Interior Department can get right or wrong in the coming months and years. Balancing our nation’s energy needs, including offshore oil and wind, with the challenge of climate change and the charge to protect and restore some of our country’s most special places is no easy feat. At this early stage, we are hopeful about Sally Jewell and look forward to learning more about her vision.
This decision is disappointing — especially considering that it was just a year ago that the U.S. Geological Survey released a report outlining significant gaps in science that must be addressed to make no-regrets choices about oil and gas development in the Arctic. Many of those gaps have yet to be filled.
How can federal agencies make informed decisions about future lease sales or exploration drilling without a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem?