Shortening days and alarmingly fast ice melt aren't the only reasons these are dark times for our Arctic.
President Obama has allowed Shell to move two big steps closer to offshore oil drilling in the Arctic this year. The EPA quietly caved and approved Shell's waiver to exceed air pollution limits.1 And even worse, the Department of Interior has actually allowed Shell to begin drilling its first well in the Chukchi Sea and Shell's drill bits struck the ocean floor on Sunday.2
But unlike the Obama administration, time is not on Shell's side. Shell is still awaiting final approval to drill deep enough to hit oil, and drilling that deep takes about three weeks — but Shell has a deadline of September 24 to stop drilling in the Chukchi before the sea ice and winter weather start to return.3
Predictably, Shell has already asked the Department of Interior to extend its drilling window to the end of October. If we can stop that from happening, we can prevent the worst damage to the Chukchi Sea, at least for one more year.
The September 24 deadline provides for a five-week window in case of a well blowout, for oil spill workers to drill a relief well before November 1, when weather turns much more severe in the Arctic and the well site will receive only 6 hours of sunlight a day.4
Giving Shell extra time by shortening the spill response window, or pushing it into periods of even more extreme Arctic weather, is a recipe for a disaster.
Of course, it's not just the safety of the Arctic that is at stake. With Arctic sea ice melting far faster than scientists predicted and at its lowest level in recorded history,5 the time is long past for us to heed the warnings of climate change, not continue heating up our planet with more and more fossil fuels.
Earlier this month, Department of Interior head Secretary Salazar pledged to hold Shell to the existing timeline when he said, "I will hold [Shell's] feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set."6
Now is the time to hold Salazar to his word, and make it clear to President Obama that if anything happens in the Arctic, we will hold him fully responsible.