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Proposal Threatens to Weaken 2016 Arctic Drilling Rule

Why Arctic waters are at risk again

Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breaching, Canada, Arctic Ocean.
© Doc White

With several crises confronting the nation at this time—from a global health pandemic to widespread protests against anti-Black racism—it is unfathomable that the Trump administration has set its sights on weakening safety and environmental protections in the Arctic Ocean. But somehow, it has.

In 2016, the Department of the Interior issued “Oil and Gas and Sulfur Operations on the Outer Continental Shelf-Requirements for Exploratory Drilling on the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf,” also known as the Arctic Drilling Rule. It was a special Arctic-specific rule that required oil and gas companies to follow common sense procedures designed to maximize safety and minimize risk in Arctic waters.

But now, the Trump administration is poised to roll-back those protections. Take action now: tell the Trump administration not to weaken protections for the Arctic.

A beluga whale during spring migration in the Chukchi Sea.
Beluga whale swimming in an open lead during spring migration Chukchi Sea © Steven J. Kazlowski / Alamy Stock Photo

The Arctic Drilling Rule created safety and environmental protection standards specifically tailored to the harsh operating conditions of the Arctic Ocean—things like unpredictable sea ice, a short open-water/ice-free season, mercurial weather, remoteness and limited infrastructure for incident response.

Under the Arctic Drilling Rule, operators are required to prepare an integrated operations plan and they must have special spill containment equipment on-site and ready for deployment. In addition, the Rule requires adherence to seasonal drilling restrictions that help ensure that the formation of sea ice does not adversely affect spill prevention and response.

The Arctic Drilling Rule was not created on a whim. It was developed thoughtfully, incorporating lessons learned from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and Shell’s calamity-plagued effort to conduct exploration drilling in the U.S. Arctic in 2012. A multi-stakeholder federal advisory committee (which included representatives from the oil and gas industry) recommended development of special Arctic drilling rules in 2013.

flyer eiders
© Henry Huntington

Despite the careful development and common-sense nature of the rule, the Trump administration is inexplicably forging ahead with plans to dismantle its protections. While the administration has not formally initiated the required public rulemaking process, we know it’s just a matter of time.

Take action: tell the administration to stop trying to weaken protections for the Arctic Ocean.

As a matter of policy, the 2016 Arctic Drilling Rule was not as aggressive as it should have been. If anything, the Rule should be strengthened to provide more robust safeguards, not weakened.

On top of that, broader economic forces and the unrelenting reality of climate change have shifted the playing field such that oil and gas companies are no longer interested in offshore drilling in Arctic waters. In 2008, oil companies owned 180 leases in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Since then, they have relinquished all but a handful. From a purely economic stance, drilling in the Arctic Ocean doesn’t make sense.

Map of Beaufort and Chukchi BOEM Leases
© Ocean Conservancy

Unfortunately, the plan to weaken the 2016 Arctic Drilling Rule is just the latest move in a longstanding effort to promote the expansion of risky offshore drilling. For instance, the Trump administration has proposed opening virtually the entire U.S. coast to offshore drilling and has already weakened other offshore drilling safety rules. More broadly, the administration has weakened scores of rules designed to safeguard public health and the environment and is proposing to radically curb requirements to undertake environmental analysis and eliminate opportunities for public participation in federal decision-making.

For years, you have been part of Ocean Conservancy’s fight to protect the Arctic. We have rallied in recognition of the unique beauty of the Arctic and its importance to all life on the planet. Vibrant communities, which are predominantly Alaska Native, have thrived along the coasts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas for generations. Arctic waters are home to iconic wildlife including walruses, polar bears, ice-dependent seals, and beluga and bowhead whales. And the role of the Arctic in regulating the planet’s climate cannot be overstated.

We cannot afford to put all this in jeopardy.

Once again, it’s time to speak up and protect Arctic waters. Tell the Trump administration not to weaken the 2016 Arctic Drilling Rule. We hope we can count on your continued support.

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