Today the Obama administration announced a decision to include Arctic lease sales in its new five-year offshore drilling program.
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?
A major oil spill would be devastating for this unique and exceptionally productive ecosystem and the subsistence way of life in Arctic coastal communities. Despite the Interior Department’s optimism, there is no proven capacity to effectively clean up spilled oil in icy frozen waters.
But there are a few encouraging signs in the new five-year program.
For instance, the Interior Department has pledged to shift to a more targeted approach to any future Arctic lease sales and to exclude certain areas of the Arctic Ocean from the new leasing program.
In addition, the Interior Department scheduled the potential new Arctic lease sales toward the end of the five-year program, which gives the agency time to adopt meaningful conservation measures in the region. But it’s absolutely imperative that the Interior Department use that time wisely.
Before deciding whether to proceed with any new lease sales, the agency must:
- Develop and implement a comprehensive science and monitoring program;
- Identify and protect additional important ecological and subsistence areas; and
- Implement Arctic-specific standards that ensure effective oil spill response in icy waters.
As the agency decides whether and under what conditions to hold future Arctic lease sales, it should consider only those areas where scientific and other evidence shows that oil and gas activities can be conducted without harming the ecosystem or opportunities for subsistence.
If we want to maintain a healthy, intact and functioning Arctic ecosystem, the Interior Department must commit to understanding and protecting this vulnerable region.