In-Depth: Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to protect America’s coastline from the dangers of offshore drilling:
“The science and wave of public opposition is clear: America’s oceans must be protected from dangerous offshore drilling. Opening our public waters up to oil and gas companies puts fragile ecosystems in jeopardy for environmental catastrophe. We cannot stand idly by while the Trump administration places the short-term profit goals of polluters over the long-term interests of the American people. I’m glad to join today’s nationwide effort to block offshore drilling by introducing my legislation to give the Pacific Coast and the Arctic Ocean the protections they deserve, shielding our oceans from reckless exploitation.”
Last Congress, Rep. Huffman introduced this bill in response to President Trump’s Executive Order expanding coal, oil, and gas leasing on public lands. This bill would make the Arctic Ocean off-limits to any future drilling proposals by prohibiting any new or renewed leases for the exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas or any other minerals in the Arctic Ocean Planning Areas of the Outer Continental Shelf:
“Dangerous oil spills are the reality of offshore drilling, and if we allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean, it is only a matter of time before environmental catastrophe strikes. We must permanently protect the Arctic Ocean for future generations. This is a Presidency by the oil industry, of the oil industry, and for the oil industry: from President Trump’s choice of the Exxon C.E.O. as Secretary of State, to his personal financial stakes in the oil and gas industry, to his recent executive actions to roll back climate protections, he is proving that his White House will jeopardize clean air, clean water, and America's outdoor heritage to further line the pockets of Big Oil.”
When Rep. Huffman reintroduced this bill in the current Congress, Alaska Wilderness League’s Legislative Director, Leah Donahey, expressed her organization’s support:
“We one hundred percent support Reps. Jared Huffman and Raul Grijalva and House Democrats moving legislation to protect America’s coastlines from dangerous offshore development. The Arctic in particular is fragile and remote with little to no infrastructure to deal with potential oil spills. The region continues to warm, and this warming is reflected in the increasingly extreme climate-related events we’re seeing across the continent. Sea ice is disappearing, and iconic Arctic species like polar bears face an uncertain future. Simply put, it would be irresponsible to drill there.”
Bob Reiss, author of The Eskimo and the Oil Man, argued in 2012 that environmentalists should support oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic waters in order to determine whether oil is present:
“[A]s a Green I believe it important to balance environmental protection with development… Balance means you have to allow drilling at times, not just always say no.”
Reiss also observed that oil revenues are of tremendous importance to native peoples in Alaska, including the Inupiat people, “who get practically all their local budget from taxing oil” and depend on oil tax money to fund “roads, rescue squads, schools, and even plumbing.” Without oil, Reiss argued, it’d be impossible to maintain Alaskans’ government services and modernize Alaska’s cities.
In September 2016, 74 members of Congress sent President Obama a bipartisan letter asking him to take action to permanently protect the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. In December 2016, Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 to permanently protect 3.8 million publicly-owned acres in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast and 115 million acres in the U.S. Arctic Ocean from oil and gas leasing.
In October 2018, the Trump administration proposed creating a new gas-drilling island less than 30 miles from the coast of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), reversing Obama’s Arctic drilling ban. In a statement announcing the deal, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the deal would make America stronger:
"Working with Alaska Native stakeholders, the Department of Interior is following through on President Trump’s promise of American Energy Dominance. Today we’re announcing approval of the Hilcorp Liberty Project, which if completed, will be the first production facility ever located in federal waters off Alaska. American energy dominance is good for the economy, the environment, and our national security. Responsibly developing our resources, in Alaska especially, will allow us to use our energy diplomatically to aid our allies and check our adversaries. That makes America stronger and more influential around the globe.”
To date, the Trump administration has auctioned an amount of public lands to energy companies that environmentalists say is “unlike anything in the modern era” while simultaneously rolling back regulations on energy exploration. In 2017, the Dept. of Interior put nearly 12 million acres of federal lands up for sale — over twice what was auctioned at the peak of the George W. Bush administration.
In the current Congress, this bill has 19 cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats. It had 67 cosponsors in the 115th Congress, all of whom were Democrats. It also had the support of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, and others.
Congress possesses the ultimate constitutional authority over public land management. Thus, should this bill pass, it would block future presidential expansion of Arctic land use for energy exploration.
Environmental groups argue that the risk of oil spills in the Arctic are too great to allow drilling, and the region is already too stressed by climate change to handle the additional disruption from oil exploration. They cite the fact that oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska still sits on the Prince William Sound’s beaches, and orca populations in that area still haven’t returned to their pre-spill numbers to support their argument that oil spills in this region can be catastrophic.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / nightman1965)