Obama defends Arctic drilling weeks after Kerry promotes clean energy at Arctic Council

There's oil under them 'bergs... Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC License.

There’s oil under them ‘bergs… Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC License.

At the Arctic Council ministerial in Iqaluit, Canada on April 25, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waxed poetic about the prospects for clean energy in the Arctic. He remarked:

My friends, clean energy is the solution to climate change. If we got the whole world to embrace clean energy choices rapidly, we can meet our two-degree target. But the window’s closing. The extraordinary thing is all of the technologies we need – whether it’s wind or solar or hydro or whatever, they’re all there. It’s the economics that don’t drive people to make the choice, so we’ve got a lot of countries putting on coal-fired burning right now, and the coal-fired burning they’re putting on will totally erase the gains that a lot of other countries are making at the same time.

So we have to have a serious conversation about this, which is why President Obama has been pushing our national program so hard, and why we are so focused on this. Clean energy is the solution to climate change. It also happens to be the world’s biggest market. It will make many people rich. Enormous numbers of jobs will be created. Environmental responsibility can be lived up to. People’s health will be better. And security will be greater for a lot of countries that today are blackmailed by one source of fuel of one kind or another.

So many benefits. How many public choices do you get to make where there are so many plusses on the good side versus the negatives on the downside? Very few.

So it is essential, especially in the Arctic, to providing affordable, reliable energy that is needed here. We got to find the ways to do it. During our chairmanship, we’re going to examine every chance for greater circumpolar collaboration to develop renewable energy and promote energy efficiency in Arctic communities.

Despite Kerry’s statement that the U.S. would promote renewable energy in the Arctic, the first major choice that the U.S. has made as Arctic Council chair has been to conditionally approve Shell’s exploratory drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska this summer. This is a clear about-face from the climate-change focused agenda Kerry said the U.S. would pursue as chair of the Arctic Council.

During a press conference at Camp David yesterday, President Barack Obama defended the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision. After Michael Viqueira, the White House correspondent for Al-Jazeera, asked whether it is “really worth the risk to drill in such a delicate ecosystem,” Obama responded:

“With respect to the situation in the Arctic, I think it’s fair to say that I know a little something about the risks of offshore drilling given what happened in the Gulf very early in my presidency.  And so nobody is more mindful of the risks involved and the dangers.  That’s why, despite the fact that Shell had put in an application for exploration in this region several years ago, we delayed it for a very lengthy period of time until they could provide us with the kinds of assurances that we have not seen before, taking account of the extraordinary challenges if, in fact, there was a leak that far north and in that kind of an environment, which would be much more difficult to deal with than in the Gulf.  Based on those very high standards, Shell had to go back to the drawing board, revamp its approach, and the experts at this point have concluded that they have met those standards.

But keep in mind that my approach when it comes to fracking, drilling, U.S. energy production of oil or natural gas has remained consistent throughout:  I believe that we are going to have to transition off of fossil fuels as a planet in order to prevent climate change.  I am working internationally to reduce our carbon emissions and to replace over time fossil fuels with clean energies.

Obviously, we start at home with all the work that we’ve done to, for example, double the use of clean energy.  But I think that it is important also to recognize that that is going to be a transition process.  In the meantime, we are going to continue to be using fossil fuels.  And when it can be done safely and appropriately, U.S. production of oil and natural gas is important.

I would rather us — with all the safeguards and standards that we have — be producing our oil and gas, rather than importing it, which is bad for our people, but is also potentially purchased from places that have much lower environmental standards than we do.

The idea that importing oil is “bad for our people” is populist pandering. If it’s really so bad, why has the U.S. continued to increase oil imports from Canada, the nation’s biggest oil supplier (not the Middle East, contrary to popular opinion)? Furthermore, in an article for Foreign Affairs, energy expert Daniel Yergin suggests that building a global network of trade and investment would be better for global energy security than a “mercantilist, state-to-state approach.”

For Obama to justify his decision by discussing the benefits of oil drilling for Alaskans and the Alaskan economy would be one thing. But for him to state that he’s going ahead with drilling in the Arctic because “importing oil is bad for our people” is sheer dishonesty. In other words, the president appears willing to put the Chukchi Sea at risk because of concerns about dependency on foreign oil. If Obama were really so concerned about imports, however, why is he advocating enormous free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?

One other strategy to spur the reduction of oil imports, if they are in fact “bad for our people,” might be to enact measures to decrease domestic oil consumption. Importing oil or reducing consumption, however, might negatively affect the Alaskan economy, as it would make the state’s resources less desirable to develop. Thus, many people in Alaska are happy with BOEM’s decision. If Shell hits the black stuff in any of the six exploratory wells it is planning to drill this summer, this could bode well for future royalties paid to the Alaskan state treasury. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) tweeted:

Rather than being a leader, however, the U.S. is simply following in the footsteps of Russia and Norway – two countries that have already begun or are making progress towards Arctic offshore drilling. The decision in favor of Shell’s plans also puts Alaska on the pathway of dependency on oil extraction for many more years to come instead of turning it into a leader in more cutting-edge industries like clean energy.

So whether or not you think drilling offshore Alaska is a good strategy for the nation or the state, BOEM’s decision does not make the U.S. look like a leader. Instead, the Obama administration seems to be following a time-tested strategy of rinse and repeat. Drill for oil, clean up the spill (ExxonValdez in 1989, Deepwater Horizon in 2010), start drilling again. BOEM’s decision also makes the U.S. appear hypocritical as Arctic Council chair given all its talk about the environment and combating climate change in Iqaluit. Contrast this with the Russian Minister for Natural Resources, who wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday, “There is no alternative to the fields on the shelf.” He may not say what environmentalists want to hear, but at least he can’t be accused of going back on his word.

Throwback Thursday: Pre-War Photos of the Aleuts

The internet likes its memes, and Throwback Thursday happens to be one of them. While I admit it is somewhat silly, at the same time, it might be interesting to look back every odd Thursday at photographs of the Arctic of yesteryear. In a region changing as quickly as the Arctic, and where the stories woven about its people and places are so often about the future rather than the past (e.g. When will the ice caps melt? What shipping lanes will be open by 2050? When will the new oil field come on stream?), it’s worthwhile to look back at how the Arctic was a mere 50 or 100 years ago.

To start off the series, here are three photographs of people in the Aleutian Islands that I came across on the United States Library of Congress’ website. Their online resources boast thousands of photographs that are free to reproduce and within the public domain.

This first photo was taken in August 1938 by the photographer V.B. Scheffer and is part of the 175,000-photograph Farm Security AdministrationOffice of War Information Photograph Collection. From 1935-1944, the U.S. government funded the photographic documentation of American life, including rural and urban conditions. Three of Scheffer’s photographs taken in the Aleutians are included in the collection, and they illustrate a way of life about as rural and remote as one can get in the U.S. The Aleutian Islands are closer to the eastern Russian city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky than Washington, D.C.

Living on the far-flung arc of volcanic islands in the Pacific, the Aleutians are a people separate from many of the other indigenous groups in Alaska, even the nearby Alutiiq and Yup’ik. (Here is a map of the indigenous peoples and languages of Alaska.) Aleuts, known as Unangax in their native language and Алеуты in Russian, inhabit the Aleutian Islands, while a small population remains in Kamchatka Krai in Russia, across the Bering Strait. The Aleuts probably crossed over from the Eurasian landmass into the Aleutian Islands 9,000 years ago. Studies of their genetic structure are fascinating and reveal the high degree of admixture spurred by the centuries of traders, fishermen, and people moving throughout the North Pacific. A paper published in Human Biology in 2010 notes, “The underlying patterns of precontact genetic structure based on Y-chromosome markers of the Aleut populations is obscured because of the gene flow from Russian male colonizers and Scandinavian and English fishermen.”

While the Scandinavian and English genetic markers may be surprising, the Russian influence is obvious, for not only was Alaska (and the Aleutian Islands) part of the Russian Empire until its purchase by the United States in 1867. There was also a great deal of mixing as well between European Russians and the indigenous peoples they encountered during their centuries-long eastward expansion. One Alaskan website claims, “Alaskans generally recognize the Russian occupation left no full-blooded Aleuts.” Relatedly, the caption of the first photograph explains:

“The population of the Aleutians, which is sparse, consists mainly of Aleuts and a few Russian and Russian-Aleut types. The Aleuts are a mongoloid people and are quite distinct from the Eskimo. Even in the cold, foggy Aleutians, youngsters like to go barefoot, as this picture shows. The Aleuts are under the protection of Interior Department’s Office of Indian Affairs.”

The caption also speaks volumes about government attitudes towards Alaska Natives and indigenous peoples in general. The fact that the caption states that the Aleuts were “under the protection” of the extant Bureau of Indian Affairs highlights the government’s long history of misguided paternalism. The photograph was taken two years after the Indian Reorganization Act was applied to Alaska, which was intended to try to grant Alaska Natives more independence and powers to self-govern. The Act, for instance, granted “Any Indian tribe, or tribes, residing on the same reservation, shall have the right to organize for its common welfare” (Section 16). Yet still, as the photograph’s caption notes, the government continues to claim them to be under their “protection.”

In the first photograph, notice the boy with the bowl cut in the bottom row, second from the right. Here he is again, this time by himself. The caption reads,

“This booted and overalled young man is an Aleut. He clearly shows his kinship with the people of Asia.”

While the tone of the caption is admittedly old-fashioned, the noted relationship between Asia and the Arctic and the long history of encounters between the two regions recalls a guest blog post I wrote for the University of Nottingham’s China Institute Policy Blog in March on ancient ties between China, northeastern Russia, and the North Pacific.

Finally, the third photo, of a man sitting outside a fox ranch in the Aleutian Islands next to what appears to be an upside-down boat.

The caption reads:

“Fox ranching is about the main commercial operation on the various inhabited Aleutian Islands. The islands form a vast wildlife refuge but fox ranching is permitted under license by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. There are very few wild animals on these islands although there were once a number of wild foxes. The foxes which form the basis of the Aleutian industry were generally imported.”

The introduction of foxes, first for hunting and later ranching, underscores my point earlier this week about the Arctic’s long history of anthropogenic environmental change. The “FOX RANCHING – NO TRESPASSING” sign on top of the building simultaneously captures the regularization and industrialization of fur production and the introduction of private property into the Aleutian Islands beginning with the arrival of the Russians in 1741. Almost two centuries prior to this photograph being taken, the Russians essentially conscripted the Aleuts into the global fur trade. In fact, it was Russian fur traders who gave them the name “Aleuts.” But they also bestowed upon to them many other problems. A story recounted on the Alaskan website referenced above recounts a story that sheds light onto how damaging the fur trade was for indigenous peoples and the environment up and down the western Pacific coast:

“In 1811, in order to obtain more of the now commercially valuable otter pelts, a party of Aleut hunters traveled to the coastal island of San Nicolas, near the Alta California-Baja California border. The locally resident Nicoleño nation sought a payment from the Aleut hunters for the large number of otters being killed in the area. Disagreement arose, turning violent; in the ensuing battle nearly all Nicoleño men were killed. This, along with European diseases, so impacted the Nicoleños, that by 1853, only one living Nicoleña person remained.”

In the Aleutian Islands, once the fur trade had almost rendered the local otter population extinct, fur traders introduced Arctic foxes (the same animal that’s now almost extinct in the European Arctic, as I mentioned the other day) to the islands. This had a number of negative consequences for the ecosystem, described here in more detail.

Four years after these photographs were taken, the Aleutian Islands would again be wrapped up in global events. The Japanese invaded the westernmost islands of Kiska and Attu in 1942 and occupied them for over a year before the Americans were able to launch a campaign to retake them. The Aleutian Islands may be geographically remote, but that has not prevented the forces of trade and war from ensnaring them.

Shell wins approval to continue the “depletion business” of the Arctic

Shell's Polar Pioneer drill rig docked in Port Angeles aboard Dockwise's Blue Marlin.

Shell’s Polar Pioneer drill rig docked in Port Angeles, Washington aboard Dockwise’s Blue Marlin on April 17, 2015. Photo adapted from Backbone Campaign/Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license.

Yesterday, the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell’s exploration plans this summer in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision is available here. Many environmentalists lambasted the president’s decision. The Guardian quoted a representative of Oceana, an oceans advocacy non-profit, as saying that an Arctic oil spill could have “catastrophic effects on the area’s wildlife and devastate one of the last intact marine ecosystems in the world.” Environmentalists are right to worry about drilling in the Arctic. Oil spill response plans are lacking in readiness, for there’s hardly any infrastructure around (more on that later). Oil breaks down slowly in the Arctic’s cool waters, and Shell already has a worrisome record so far in the Alaskan offshore as profiled by the New York Times in their feature magazine story, The Wreck of the Kulluklast December. Yet environmentalists and many others are misguided in their perception of the Arctic as a pristine environment. The World Economic Forum introduces their document, Demystifying the Arcticwith the following paragraph:

“To this day, the general public thinks of the Arctic in visions of unspoiled ocean and landscapes, expansive ice, clean water, unique species and aboriginal cultures – essentially, it reminds everyone that a true wilderness still exists.”

The Siberian Fur Trade depleted the Russian Arctic and Far East of millions of animals.

The Siberian Fur Trade depleted the Russian Arctic and Far East of millions of animals from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Nowhere in this document that is supposed to “demystify” the Arctic is there a discussion of previous ruinations of the Arctic’s environment. While the region may not be smoggy like Los Angeles, clear-cut like vast swaths of the Amazon, or slashed and burned like the forests of Southeast Asia, it has been plundered nonetheless. To name just one example, from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, millions of fur-bearing animals were trapped in the Eurasian and North American Arctic, their pelts sold in markets in places like St. Petersburg, Beijing, and New York. In a single year, the pelts of 70,000 sables, 700,000 ermines, 5 million rabbits, and 15 million squirrels were removed from Siberia. The book Furs and Frontiers of the High North illustrates the vast elimination of furry animals like Arctic fox, sable, mink, squirrels, and otters from the tundra and taiga. Only 150 European Arctic fox are left in the wild, for instance, making them just a little less rare than fur-bearing trout.

Hellheim Glacier's retreat, Greenland.

Hellheim Glacier’s retreat, Greenland.

The Arctic’s mountains still stand tall while its glaciers glisten blue. Thus, the physical landscape is still more or less intact (though changing rapidly now due to climate change). But many of the small animals that once darted across those lands are gone, victims of rapacious resource extraction driven by consumer demand in the metropolises of the south. The lack of compelling photographs of landscapes before and after the depletion of the Arctic’s animals doesn’t make the changes to the environment any less dramatic, though it does make them harder to represent to the public. If someone has as powerful a visual for illustrating the overhunting of Arctic species as the photographs that document glacial retreat, please feel free to comment.

The frontier goes underground

In the 18th century, Chinese aristocrats were wearing fur coats on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing. While fur may no longer be as fashionable as it once was, at least in much of the Western world, fuel is king in the streets of the West. This leads me to a second point. When the Arctic is posited as a “last frontier” or “new frontier,” such phrases are purely rhetorical devices meant to prime the (re-)opening up of land for capital investment. The fur frontier closed when when tastes for fur fashions dissipated in the middle of the nineteenth century, by which point much of the Arctic’s organic material had been depleted. The next frontier in the Arctic eventually became its inorganic material: the substrate, offshore, in rocks – wherever fossil fuels and minerals might lie. Rather than the Arctic representing a “new frontier,” instead, the frontier has simply gone underground. Capitalism’s expansion is dependent on this type of multidirectional geographic expansion. Since most of the earth’s land has already been incorporated into the web of global trade, expansion is now moving into different volumes, down into the soil and even up into outer space, where various companies hope to one day mine asteroids. Expanding into these challenging areas requires large expenditures that will hopefully result in even larger returns. In an interview with AP, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson noted, “The size of the resource prize has to be large to support the risked capital that has to be put in place. The Arctic is one of the few places left where we believe those opportunities exist.”

The Arctic needs investment. Why?

More than just being put at risk, capital will also benefit from the construction of new infrastructure in the Arctic since it offers additional opportunities for returns. Once built, new infrastructure will also allow hastened extraction of Arctic resources previously trapped not just by ice, but by a dearth of pipelines, railroads, and ports. Jason Moore, an assistant professor of sociology at Binghamton University (who also runs a fantastic blog called “World-Ecological Imaginations”), writes, “Fresh supplies of land and labor, in turn, are worthless without a reconstruction and expansion of the system’s built environment, especially its transportation networks” [1]. The Arctic may be on the verge of this type of development given politicians’ calls for new infrastructure like ports, ice-strengthened ships, all-weather roads, and the like. All of this infrastructure is necessary to support the extraction of minerals, the commodity on which the current round of Arctic development is largely premised. As such, it should come as no surprise that the World Economic Forum defines “Challenge 2″ for the Arctic as, “The Arctic needs investment. A critical deficiency and area of great strategic importance is the development of infrastructure projects and logistical hubs.” 

Left unsaid is the reason the Arctic needs precisely this type of investment at precisely this moment. The answer is that the types of commodities that states and investors wish to extract has changed. In previous centuries, there was a whole network of trade routes centered around the fur trade, for instance. Many of the fur trading posts have disappeared, “lost with the deterioration and dismantling of most forts and posts shortly after abandonment,” as the National Park Service website describes. The site continues, “Most of what we know about these sites comes from archeological research.” Whatever infrastructural traces remain of the fur trade are no longer useful, as it is billions of barrels of liquid fossil fuels that must be moved – not small pelts that could be transported by reindeer, boats, and people on horseback. The change in the type of commodity being removed from the Arctic necessitates changes in transportation infrastructure. Pipelines, shipping routes, and railroads are replacing the pathways of previous eras.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline in winter.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline in winter.

The whitewashed frontier

To whitewash the Arctic as a new frontier, there is no shortage of “frontier discourse” by bureaucrats, investors, oil men, and reporters. Here are just a few quotes and examples from the past few days.

In contrast to Sherwood-Randall’s belief that global warming has brought about the latest round of Arctic exploration, in fact, improvement in technology are driving the push northward and downward of the oil frontier. ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson essentially stated as much in his interview with AP. He remarked, “Anytime you are dealing in these frontier areas where you are really driven by technology, these are very long time frames, multi-decade time frames.” He did not mention climate change as a motivating factor.

Rex Tillerson’s interview is probably one of the most frank interviews I’ve seen lately from someone speaking about Arctic resource extraction. It’s short and worth reading – perhaps most of all because he shamelessly admits, “We are in the depletion business.” Let this be a reminder that once all of the Arctic’s fur-bearing animals were depleted in the nineteenth century, many groups of indigenous people that has once profited from the fur trade became quickly impoverished and lost a great deal of political clout. Should the day come when the Arctic’s fossil fuels have been depleted – even though a recent study in Nature concluded that they must stay in the ground to limit global warming to 2°C – what will be left except impoverished locals and traces of abandoned pipelines and platforms for archaeologists to one day uncover?

In the 1890s, the last days of a fur trading post in Fort Chipewyan, Canada.

In the 1890s, the last days of a fur trading post in Fort Chipewyan, Canada.


[1] Moore, J. W. (2000). Environmental crises and the metabolic rift in world-historical perspective. Organization & Environment, 13(2), 123-157.