While continuing to focus on the campaign trail, Sen. Bernie Sanders has not forgotten his duties as a sitting U.S. Senator. On Friday, Sanders and 11 fellow senators sent a letter to President Obama urging him to cease Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic. Although the president has stated goals for controlling climate change, Sanders and his fellow senators have pointed out the utter hypocrisy in the Obama administration’s current policy.
In May, the Obama administration conditionally approved to allow Shell to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea. A pristine marine habitat to a wide range of protected species, the Chukchi Sea is also home to roughly half of America’s polar bears.
But according to a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) report published earlier this year, Shell has an estimated 75% chance of causing at least one massive oil spill over the course of the company’s 77-year lease. Due to its isolated location and harsh weather conditions, the Chukchi Sea is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill oil. With no roads connecting to major cities, the closest Coast Guard station equipped to deal with a potential spill is located over 1,000 miles away from the site.
In a letter sent to the president on Friday and signed by 12 senators, including Al Franken, Patrick Leahy, Jeff Merkley, Richard Blumenthal, Ben Cardin, Brian Schatz, Martin Heinrich, Ed Markey, Cory Booker, Gary Peters, and Sheldon Whitehouse, Sanders pointed out that “opening up the Arctic Ocean to drilling poses serious risks to wildlife and natural resources, and the communities that depend on them. Oil companies like Shell have yet to demonstrate they possess the capacity to prevent and respond to oil spills in the unforgiving environment of the Arctic Ocean. Instead of opening a new carbon reserve within an invaluable ecosystem, the United States should use its position as Chair of the Arctic Council to discourage Arctic drilling and to promote Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, all while guarding against the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change in this region.”
The Obama administration initially gave Shell permission to begin Arctic offshore drilling in the summer of 2012. But numerous safety and operational problems, including an oil rig named the Kulluk running aground, caused the U.S. Department of the Interior to suspend Shell’s Arctic drilling until the issues could be resolved. According to estimates of the recoverable oil beneath the Chukchi Sea, Shell will only be able to salvage enough oil to supply the entire U.S. for four years.
“Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth,” said Susan Murray, a vice president of Oceana, an environmental group. “Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell’s proposal.”
As a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, the Chukchi Sea could potentially become the location of an even larger ecological disaster than BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Instead of adhering to his own rhetoric concerning climate change and alternative energy, President Obama appears to be blindly following in the footsteps of his predecessors. In their letter, the senators argued that allowing more drilling would be inconsistent with the president’s stated goals for controlling climate change and poses serious risks to wildlife and natural resources.
“At a time when our planet is warming due to climate change, the last thing our environment needs is more drilling,” Sanders explained. “What we need is for Congress and the White House to move toward clean energy such as solar, wind and geothermal.”