It isn’t the best of times for the American Arctic and let me explain why.
The world is in the midst of an oil glut. In the last year, oil prices bottomed out before rising modestly. A NASA study just offered the news that a massive ice shelf in Antarctica, half the size of Rhode Island, will disintegrate by 2020, and not so long ago Science magazine reported that the melting of that region’s ice sheets is proceeding far faster than expected. Sayonara, Miami Beach! All of this, of course, is happening thanks to the burning of fossil fuels. In March, the Obama administration responded to such a world by preparing the way for a rather familiar future. It lifted a ban on drilling for oil and gas off the U.S. southern Atlantic coast, opening those waters and their untapped four billion barrels of oil and 37 trillion cubic feet of gas to future drilling. Then, less than two weeks ago, the Interior Department green-lighted Shell Oil, a company with a memorably bleak record of exploration and disaster in the Arctic, to launch this country into a drill-baby-drill future in northern waters.
If Shell gets all its other permits in place, it will begin drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast. This will happen under what might be some of the worst weather conditions on the planet in an area “prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, [and] frigid temperatures.” We’re talking, of course, about another four billion barrels of potentially exploitable oil just in that region, which is also a sanctuary for whales, polar bears, and other species that have no vote in this matter. Subhankar Banerjee put the environmental problem in a nutshell (or perhaps an ice cube) at this site back in March in a piece aptly titled “Arctic Nightmares.” Of the dangers of letting Shell loose in those waters, he wrote, “Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.” Keep in mind that this sort of far north drilling can only go on because the past drilling and burning of fossil fuels has helped melt Arctic sea ice and open up its potentially vast energy reserves to exploitation. It’s a little like watching the proverbial snake eat its tail.
So, thanks to our environmental president, things look bad off Alaska. And as TomDispatch regular Dahr Jamail reports, in June they’re about to get significantly worse. The U.S. Navy is arriving in the Gulf of Alaska big time — and we’re not talking about the cavalry riding to the rescue here. In waters that are starting to seem like Grand Central Station, that service is planning to launch massive war games with a new set of potentially deleterious effects on those seas and what lives in them. But let Jamail explain. Note that this is a joint project of TomDispatch and Truthout, the invaluable website where he now works. Tom Engelhardt
Destroying what remains
How the U.S. Navy plans to war game the Arctic
By Dahr Jamail
I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, “the great one.” During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks. It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.
Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as “endangered” in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.
Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the U.S. military.