Not for the first time, the Obama administration is offering doublespeak when it comes to energy and the environment. On Sunday the White House announced its intention to designate more than 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness, which would put the area permanently off limits to oil and gas drilling. “Obama’s Arctic Power Grab,” is how Politico described the move, framing it as a sign of “Obama’s shift to the left on environmental issues.” Oil executives and Alaskan politicians responded with apocryphal statements. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, went so far as to claim that Obama had “effectively declared war on Alaska.”
Two days later the administration unveiled a five-year plan that would open up a vast new stretch of ocean off the coast of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to oil and gas drilling, and sell new leases for drilling in the Arctic. More than 3 billion barrels of oil await the drilling rigs on the outer continental shelf of the Atlantic, according to estimates from the early 1980s. The New York Times reports that the reserves could be even greater. “This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.
Let’s hear that again: the Obama administration proposes to open up nearly 80 percent of the nation’s untapped offshore oil and gas reserves by 2022. The sick irony of that figure is that 80 percent also happens to be the proportion of proven fossil-fuel reserves that must stay in the ground in order to avoid the extremely unpleasant effects of more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming.
The drilling plan exemplifies Obama’s incoherent policy-making in regards to the climate crisis. Less than week ago in the State of the Union address, he reaffirmed that “no challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” His administration has made some real steps to confront that challenge—dedicating $80 billion for renewable energy in the 2009 stimulus package, raising fuel efficiency standards and directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, to name a few.
But when it comes to energy, Obama’s “all of the above” strategy is in direct conflict with his climate agenda. It’s fairly obvious now that a proportional response to the climate crisis requires the United States and other countries to walk away from most of their fossil-fuel reserves—and, as a corollary, requires America to figure out an economic alternative to the petrostate. As Mark Hertsgaard reported for Harper’s last summer, even Obama’s own aides struggle to explain how the president’s enthusiasm for the North American oil boom aligns with the target of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Obama is on track to be someone “who couldn’t break through contemporary politics to the place we need to go,” White House adviser John Podesta told Hertsgaard. So little of the carbon budget remains to burn that Jewell’s talk of “a balanced proposal” to free up vast new stores of fossil fuel is both ridiculous and tragic.