As President Barack Obama alighted in Alaska on Monday for his touted tour of the effects that climate change has already wreaked on America’s northernmost state, he did so amid a thunder of cries that the trip essentially made him a hypocrite.
Obama has been riding a tide of what US media are calling his environmental “bucket list,” which ramped up last month with his announcement of the Clean Power Plan, cutting new coal plant carbon emissions and clamping down on methane.
The Alaska trip, which media have noted is “choreographed” to cast Obama’s climate message against a backdrop of picturesque but melting glaciers and eroding fishing villages, is also a part of the President’s plan to bolster US standing at the upcoming COP21 UN climate summit in Paris this December.
Yesterday, he warned that countries attending the summit, including the US, are not doing enough to stop global warming, and said now was the time “to protect the one planet we’ve got while we still can.”
But he’s getting a very mixed bag of reviews from US environmentalists to who his words are ringing hollow.
The rub is that two weeks before travelling to Alaska, Obama signed off on some $3 billion in leases for Shell to drill in the Arctic that had been left over from the Bush Administration – leases that would have been extremely difficult to block, but not impossible.
Slate Magazine ran a headline announcing that, “Obama is a Climate Hypocrite. His trip to Alaska Proves it” and activists from Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations have toed the line.
Think Progress asserted that Obama could have taken a few more heroic measures against the Shell leases by outright cancelling them, or by declaring the Chukchi Sea a marine sanctuary. Neither would have been easy to do, and they are points well taken by Bellona, which is no bigger a fan of offshore drilling in the Arctic than its US colleagues.
But Sigurd Enge, Bellona’s Arctic expert noted that many on the US side are missing some important points about what drilling in the Arctic actually entails, and what will inevitably lead to its failure.
Climate change is killing Arctic drilling on its own
Shell and its counterparts in the Russian Arctic think the predicted disappearance of the Arctic ice cap between 2020 and 2050 will bring a bonanza. Melting ice will clear a path to Arctic holdings estimated by the US Geological Survey to include 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources – or a total haul of 90 billion barrels of oil, 509 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.
But far from paving an ice-free highway to these treasures, Enge noted that climate change is wreaking havoc with once predictable weather and smooth ice covered seas.
Instead, weather conditions at the top of the world are getting more violent, and loose ice sheet are forming an armada of giant icebergs set against hundreds of oil company Titanics.
“Wave patterns are changing because the ice is disappearing,” said Enge. “The waves are higher, causing rough seas, and Arctic low pressure systems bring more extreme weather, hitting you like a hammer.”
Because of this, said Enge, “climate change, far from making the Arctic hospitable, makes it one of the worst places in the world to try to drill oil.”
Imagine building an oil platform in the middle of that – and there are plenty of indications that imagination is failing.
A shooting gallery of oil platforms
For instance, Shell announced the same day as Obama’s arrival in Anchorage that it was postponing drilling due to rough weather. Even Norway’s Statoil, arguably the most well equipped company in the world to drill the Arctic, is steadily backing off the idea, and in January, handed back all but one of the leases it acquired off Greenland. In 2013, Statoil likewise put its own projects off Alaska on hold.
Shell has experienced the rough ride climate change is dishing out first hand. The company has sunk $6 billion into its Arctic ambitions, and experienced several high-profile setbacks, including the abandonment of its drilling campaign in the Beaufort Sea after its oil rig ran aground in 2012.
Enge predicted that such surrenders will become more common. Even projects that have on the drawing board for 20 years aren’t getting anywhere, said Enge.
“The Shtokman oil and gas field [in the Russian Arctic] was discovered about two decades ago and no development has occurred – it’s too challenging,” said Enge.
In sum, said Enge, Arctic oil, if ever produced, would be the most expensive ever, driving down its own demand in a market climate where oil is still hovering around $50 a barrel.
Estimates from Energy Information Agency back him up: The cost of drilling the Alaskan Arctic is 50 to 100 percent greater than an equivalent project in Texas.
Still the lust is there. Russian state oil and gas giant Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform – the only one operating in the Arctic – managed last year to produce 70,000 tons of substandard crude that it sold to France’s Total – incidentally another company that has sworn off plans to drill in the Arctic (itself, anyway).
Arctic oil might never be needed
Obama has meanwhile defended his decision to sign Shell’s leases by saying that fossil fuels are a necessary short term evil in the transition to cleaner renewable energy sources, and that he’d rather buy American.
Critics are right to suggest this apologia is a little anemic. But in light of Obama’s other near-end-of-term efforts to put climate change on the front burner of American international policy – more than any other US president has before attempted – it’s a stretch to call him a “hypocrite.”
Continued advocacy against offshore drilling in the Arctic is an absolute necessity – coupled with an understanding that it’s technologically and economically burning itself out.
That may or may not have been on Obama’s mind when he signed those leases.
But the oil industry’s decades-old flailing in the Arctic, and recent reports from the International Energy Association that renewables are now the second largest energy source in the world, might offer some assurance that Chukchi oil might be irrelevant before its tapped.