With the joint U.S.-Canada announcement that the Arctic will remain permanently off-limits to new oil and gas drilling, President Obama recognized the risk of spills to communities, but he also showed he understands the climate consequences.
THE Arctic, and its images of icebergs and the Inuit people, are in trouble. This November, Arctic sea ice coverage plunged 300,000 square miles lower than ever recorded for that time of year. That is an area four times bigger than Washington state. Last week, Arctic temperatures were at least 20 degrees Farhrenheit higher than normal. In these conditions, native people can’t hunt, and ecosystems won’t survive.
The Arctic is ground zero for the effects of climate change, and so it is perhaps fitting that some of the world’s largest producers of carbon-based fuels are lining up to drill for more fossil fuels there. For them, adapting to these new conditions in the Arctic means one thing — easier access to oil and gas.
Thankfully, the Obama administration has seen it differently. With the joint U.S.-Canada announcement that the Arctic will remain permanently off-limits to new oil and gas drilling, Obama recognized the risk of spills to communities, but he also showed he understands the climate consequences.
Everyone understands how an oil-soaked coastline is bad news. But it can be harder, especially for political leaders and government agencies, to see the connection between new offshore oil drilling and climate disruption.
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Take the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, which is charged with issuing leases for that drilling. When it calculates the climate, or carbon dioxide, effect of this leasing, it does all kinds of complicated calculations about the energy used by the ships that might go to and fro. But it hasn’t actually counted the carbon in the oil itself, even though that oil is responsible for one-third of global CO2 emissions, and oil is the reason these leases are issued.
By not counting the CO2 from the oil itself, BOEM’s carbon math would appear to give little reason to question drilling on climate grounds. In fact, the agency concluded that five more years of Arctic oil drilling would somehow decrease CO2 by a small amount.
But President Obama saw through it. As the announcement made clear, he is only interested in new oil and gas developments that “are consistent with national and global climate and environmental goals.” The Arctic doesn’t meet this test, since its oil would come “at a time when the United States and its international partners must be transitioning to alternative energy sources to reduce emissions.”
Ironically, BOEM may have inadvertently assisted this decision. This is because sitting alongside the agency’s official line on the carbon emissions was a new calculation, hiding in plain sight in their report. For the first time, BOEM had consulted its own model of the world oil market, and found that for every barrel of oil pulled from the Arctic, global oil consumption would go up by half as much.
This is a common-sense effect: Increased oil supply leads to increased oil consumption. And by including this finding, BOEM showed that emissions attributed to Arctic drilling are actually 10 times bigger than the small decrease the agency found before, essentially overturning its “official” conclusion.
Another new calculation by the agency further undermines its official finding of no impact. The authors stated that, to meet a carbon budget and limit warming to the internationally agreed average goal of 2 degrees Celsius since before the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. can emit only so much more CO2. From that perspective, any new CO2 extracted in oil from the Arctic would have to be left permanently undeveloped somewhere else, such as in the Texas Permian Basin oil field.
But Obama has little authority over those mostly private lands in Texas or elsewhere, or on leases that have already been issued in the Gulf of Mexico, for that matter.
So to help close off further climate disruption, limiting oil from the Arctic and Atlantic is a solid choice by Obama. Throughout his presidency, he has recognized that meeting stringent global limits on warming will take many more tools than the Republican-controlled Congress and statehouses are likely to invent on their own.
This is especially true considering we may soon have Donald Trump-appointed secretaries of environment, energy and state who all have ties to the oil industry.
Efforts to slow the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure — at whatever levels of government — can help forestall further entrenched interests and carbon emissions long enough until more far-reaching and cost-effective policies can be put in place.
Obama first advanced the idea of a climate test — whether new infrastructure is consistent, or not, with a low-carbon future — for the Keystone XL pipeline. In these last few weeks of Obama’s presidency, he has applied this simple and profound concept yet again.
Other leaders — including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and counterparts Kate Brown in Oregon and Jerry Brown in California — should now look at their jurisdictions’ own role in fossil-fuel infrastructure and apply the test more widely.