Interior Department Curbs Arctic Offshore Drilling – It’s Not Ecological Concern That’s Saving The Polar Region

The Interior Department is taking steps to curb Arctic offshore drilling. Multiple leases slated to be doled out next year and extensions to be allotted to at least two oil companies have been shelved. While these steps might indicate a renewed interest in the preservation of the Arctic region, the reasons are primarily economic, rather than ecological.

The Interior Department confirmed it is canceling future lease sales and will not extend current leases in Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast. This significantly curtails any renewed attempts to seek oil and gas reserves, thereby safeguarding the delicate Arctic region, home of many endangered species. Incidentally, the announcement comes close on the heels of the decision taken by Royal Dutch Shell to curb oil exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Royal Dutch Shell confirmed that it had spent more than $7 billion to date to explore the possibilities of striking oil reserves in the Arctic region. However, the company claims it hasn’t managed to hit upon any reliable underground reserves from a well drilled in the Chukchi. Combined with the “unpredictable federal regulatory environment,” the company said it wasn’t keeping its hopes high of striking oil in the Arctic. The company had said that the little oil it found in this summer’s drilling is not worth the cost and hassle of drilling, reported MSN.

Offshore Arctic Drilling
Some fear that the Interior Department’s decision to cease Arctic offshore drilling is based on economics and viability, and not on the concern for the region were confirmed. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the federal government is canceling federal petroleum lease sales in U.S. Arctic waters that were scheduled for 2016 and 2017, reported SFGate.

“In light of Shell’s announcement, the amount of acreage already under lease and current market conditions, it does not make sense to prepare for lease sales in the Arctic in the next year and a half. Current market conditions and low industry interest made the leasing decision easier. “

Jewell complimented her staff for overseeing the safety and environmental standards of Shell’s drilling in the Chukchi Sea but added that the company won’t be getting any more time to hunt for oil reserves in the Arctic. Shell’s lease for the Chukchi exploration is due to expire in 2020, and the company had applied for an extension. Norway’s Statoil, on the other hand, has its lease expiring in 2017 and had made a similar application. Both the companies have been denied an extension.

The reasoning in the rejection letters were quite straightforward and mentioned that the Interior Department didn’t see any “sufficient plans to actually take advantage of the leases if their terms were extended.”

Though the reasons to curb offshore Arctic drilling are economical, environmentalists are rejoicing. They have termed it as a major victory for the fragile environment and the mammals that inhabit the region, reported ABC News. The Arctic region is already facing a lot of threat from accelerated global warming, and any more mechanized activity could set off a chain reaction that could be devastating for the dwindling number of mammals that live in the frigid regions of the Arctic.


Environmentalists have been calling the Obama administration to curb drilling in the Arctic for quite some time, and this decision is certainly a landmark one, said Susan Murray, vice president of the Pacific for Oceana.

“Today’s announcement moves us away from old arguments about companies’ unwise investments and toward better choices for the Arctic Ocean As Shell found out, the Arctic Ocean is unique and unforgiving. Especially in light of economic, technological, and environmental realities, there is no reason to extend leases or hold new sales.”

While the United States has taken some concrete steps to prevent the exploration of the Arctic for oil, will other countries who own part of the region take similar steps to preserve the region?

[Image Credit | Karen Ducey, Markku Ulander / Getty Images]