Nothing Conservative About Rush to Drill Arctic
No sooner had the Obama Administration announced its decision to remove the Arctic Ocean from its 5-year oil and gas leasing plan than came a knee-jerk pledge by oil drilling advocates that the incoming administration will reverse it.
Not if common-sense and prudence are able to trump special interest politics.
First of all, the current abundance of cheaper and easier oil production opportunities in North Dakota, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico—along with the low price per barrel—make risky, expensive Arctic drilling both uneconomical and unnecessary.
And there are no signs that this will change much over the next five years. Increasing production from Iran and a commitment by other OPEC countries to keep oil prices low, mean that Arctic drilling will remain financially risky for the foreseeable future.
Royal Dutch Shell, after investing more than $7 billion, recently halted its efforts to drill in Arctic Ocean due, in large part, to concerns about low oil prices and disappointing results from a test well.
Rushing to drill in the remote region—specifically in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska’s northern coast—is a high-risk proposition for another, even more significant reason. There is absolutely no indication whatsoever that an oil spill there can be effectively responded to. In fact, all indications are just the opposite.
The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed unabated for many weeks despite the almost instant availability of massive response assets.
After that spill, which was the worst in U.S. history, a bi-partisan commission that studied what went wrong issued strong cautionary conclusions about drilling for oil in the remote and icy arctic waters.
In stark contrast to the Gulf, these arctic seas are located 1000 miles from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard base, there are only a few small airstrips, winter response in subzero darkness would be impossible, ice cover most of the year would hinder containment and cleanup, and bad weather could ground workers for weeks at any time of the year.
The report issued by the commission noted serious concerns about arctic oil-spill response, containment, search and rescue, and ecological impacts. It recommended additional studies to better understand the sensitive polar sea ecosystem and the likely impacts of oil drilling, beefed up Coast Guard funding to build an adequate Arctic response capability, and “satisfactorily demonstrated” oil spill containment by the industry.
Today, six years after that report, none of its recommendations have been met. The Coast Guard’s capabilities in the region remain woeful. It has only one old and unreliable heavy icebreaker. The oil industry has not proven that it can contain a spill in arctic conditions, nor that it is willing to invest in a robust spill response capability. And the ecological research needed remains largely nonexistent.
None of this seems to matter to the zealous proponents of Arctic drilling. In their insatiable quest for every last drop of domestic oil, they are willing to throw all caution and common sense to the wind. For them, no risk is too great, no environmental impact unacceptable.
Such an attitude is not—and never has been—conservative. Whether it is personal finances, the nation’s fiscal health, national defense, or other matters, prudence has always been the hallmark of conservatism.
Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman who is considered the father of modern conservatism, noted: "Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director and regulator, the standard of them all."
If President-elect Trump wants to follow in the footsteps of great conservative leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, he will let prudence, common sense, and our national interest guide his approach.
In this case, that means saying no to short-sighted special interests who, having allowed greed and radicalism to subjugate all reason and foresight, want to rush pell-mell into drilling the Arctic Ocean. Keeping the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas out of the 5-year leasing plan is the right decision.
It is also the conservative one.