In response to:

In the Beautiful, Threatened North from the March 7, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

On February 27, just as Ian Frazier’s review of my anthology Arctic Voices was being published [NYR, March 7], Shell announced that after both its rigs, Noble Discoverer and Kulluk, suffered heavy damage and were cited for EPA violations, it would not drill in Alaska’s Arctic waters in 2013.

Shell’s mishaps are dissuading other companies that also bought leases in Alaska’s Arctic waters. On March 15, the Norwegian company Statoil indicated that it might abandon plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea altogether, after previously saying that it would postpone until 2015. On April 10, ConocoPhillips announced that it would “put its 2014 Alaska Chukchi Sea exploration drilling plans on hold.”

There will be calm in the Arctic Ocean this summer. It’s a good time to reflect on the Obama administration’s role in the oil companies’ drilling plans and look forward to a more just future for the Arctic.

Last year, the administration gave fast-track approval to Shell’s drilling permits for the Arctic, and in doing so violated several important environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The NEPA requires the government to do an environmental impact statement if there is reason to believe that a proposed activity will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. As the essays in Arctic Voices—and Shell’s recent violations of the Clean Air Act—make clear, such drilling would have a severe impact on the local Iñupiat people. But the administration did not prepare an environmental impact statement for Shell’s operation in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Moreover, it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow Shell to drill in water that is home to more than ten thousand endangered bowhead whales, nearly four thousand threatened polar bears, and tens of thousands of walruses (currently being considered for endangered status). I would urge the government to conduct a thorough assessment of the impact on health that may be caused by Shell’s future Arctic operations.

Meanwhile, new evidence reveals that climate change is happening much faster in the Arctic Ocean than elsewhere on the planet. The extent of sea ice in August–September of last year set a new record low—18 percent less than the previous record set in 2007. Rapidly receding sea ice is having a devastating effect on the Arctic’s marine ecology and its coastal indigenous communities. President Obama is now asking federal agencies to use the NEPA to consider the impact of climate change before approving major projects. On February 19, the Alaska Wilderness League, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club published an ad in USA Today with the heading: “President Obama, your climate legacy will start when Shell’s Arctic drilling stops.” As I wrote in Arctic Voices, it’s time to put a stop to Shell’s drilling plan in America’s Arctic Ocean for this summer—and all the summers to come.

Subhankar Banerjee
Port Townsend, Washington