The national conversation about offshore drilling has shifted in the past few weeks. Shell pulled out of the Arctic Ocean after months of public outcry and unforgiving conditions. Then the Obama administration called off Arctic leasing sales for the next two years and rejected Shell’s application to extend its existing leases in the region. Towns all along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey through Florida have passed resolutions opposing drilling off of their coasts.
All the while, presidential candidates tweeted and commented on the implications of offshore drilling.
Now President Obama is poised to make one of the most important decisions of his presidency about how to manage our publicly owned oceans and protect our children from climate change.
His administration will soon release the next five-year offshore leasing plan. The current draft reopens the door to drilling in the Arctic Ocean and exposes the Atlantic Ocean to drilling for the first time in 30 years.
This version would lock our nation into decades of increased climate change pollution and oil spill risk. But if the president decides to seize the opportunity provided by Shell’s retreat and community groundswell on the Atlantic coast by putting these waters off-limits to drilling for good, he can solidify his legacy as leader in the climate fight and the effort to protect natural heritage.
If the president favors the sustainable future instead of the dirty past, he will have plenty of support. Poll after poll after poll show that the vast majority of Americans want leaders to tackle climate change. One survey found that 70 percent of Americans support strict limits on carbon pollution from power plants. And 56 percent of Republicans believe in climate change and 72 percent support accelerating clean energy development, according to a recent survey by leading GOP pollsters.
Democratic presidential candidates are starting to echo these views and connect their energy policies to the fight against climate change. In August, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “Drilling the Arctic at a time when we face serious climate emergency should be unthinkable.” And Former Secretary Hillary recently stated “we want to keep more fossil fuels under the ocean and under the ground. That’s why I’m against Arctic drilling.”
Clinton has repeatedly emphasized the need to fight climate change by pivoting to renewable resources like wind and solar power. In July, she announced that if she were elected president, she would ensure the nation gets 33 percent of its energy from renewables by 2027. And at the Democratic debate, she framed the fight against climate change as an opportunity “to grow our economy.”
Republican candidates have taken a different approach.
During an early fall cold snap this month, Donald Trump declared “we could use a big fat dose of global warming.” Senator Marco Rubio just released an energy plan that calls for more offshore drilling and would nullify U.S. participation in an international climate agreement. Rubio represents Florida, where many local governments oppose plans to open offshore drilling in the region.
These positions are out of step with the majority of Americans, but they fit squarely with the fossil fuel industry, which has spent billions of dollars in the past few years to elect and influence lawmakers who will side with polluting companies. They want to open the Arctic and Atlantic for drilling because it will keep the cycle of fossil fuel investment and infrastructure going for years to come.
Oil drilled from these oceans wouldn’t arrive in the market for 10 or 20 years. The industry wants us to believe America can’t make the shift to cleaner solutions by then. But the evidence is all around us that America is already on a safer, more sustainable path—from fuel efficiency standards that will slash oil use in new cars in half by 2025 to wind and solar projects supplying 57 percent of all new power generation capacity in the first part of 2015.
No elected leader should let the oil industry knock us of that path by opening new areas to drilling—drilling for oil we won’t need and can’t burn if we want to defuse the climate threat. The majority of Americans want to move into a cleaner future, and President Obama can help us get there. He can protect the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from drilling for good.
Franz Matzner is a Senior Advisor to the NRDC Action Fund.