The Political Balancing Game: Obama Okays Arctic Drilling

Think of it as a huge game of pick-up-sticks. While I know this is dating me horribly, the analogy of that archaic game of ‘grab the most while destroying the least along the way’ seems about right for President Barack Obama’s recent decision to give a go-ahead to Arctic drilling.

On Monday, the Obama administration gave the final okay to Royal Dutch Shell Oil’s application to drill under the Chukchi Sea. From the start, the project has been plagued with problems, including the stupendous loss of its $400 million containment dome from an electrical mishap and the scrapping of an earlier oil rig and tow vessel in stormy seas. The losses were later summarized in a Coast Guard investigation as evidence of “inadequate assessment and management of risks.” Former Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar put it even more bluntly: “Shell screwed up.”

Many have tried to extrapolate the reason why the president, who has said things like, “climate change can no longer be denied …” and Bristol Bay is “something that is too precious for us to just be putting out to the highest bidder,” could authorize drilling in the Arctic. Granted, the Chukchi Sea isn’t Bristol Bay, but the constraints that have been placed on Arctic drilling seem to suggest that the administration knows there is as much to lose environmentally from an accident in Chukchi Sea as there is in Bristol Bay.

Of course, the real conundrum is how the administration could ever figure that Arctic drilling could be seen as complementing its policies on climate change.

When trying to answer the unanswerable, it’s best to consider the climate forces that drive human ambition.

The Arctic is, in its present state, a huge pizza of geopolitical interests. There’s Canada, which of course has had its section of the Arctic for ages — at least since 1967. Petroleum development is a prime consideration in its 5 percent ownership of the Arctic. Greenland and Norway, with their 11 and 12 percent stakes respectively, have for years been driven by natural gas exploration.

But it is Russia, with its expansive gas exploration, that owns the heap of the pile — with 52 percent of the Arctic’s assessed resources. The U.S., though second, has determined interests in its 20 percent of the Arctic’s rich but elusive wealth.

It was no different when explorers first set out for the North Pole. Reaching that inaccessibly frozen frontier of waterways and passages was as much a matter of political ambition as it was commercial enterprise. The country that “owned” the most successful passage through the Far North claimed the hill. In this case, the U.S. will never appear to own more than Russia, but a chess game isn’t governed by submission. It’s won by strategy, luck and bluffing.

But to return to my antiquated pick-up-stick analogy: The problem that always seemed to be overlooked was the final outcome — the fact that demise was always inevitable in a collective, competitive pursuit of the biggest resources. Eventually, that ecological pile of sticks was due to fall. The prize went to the player who didn’t rattle the pile, who got out first. But from an environmental standpoint, everyone lost. The harvest for the most and the best was finished.

The question, as I see it, is: How can we expect other countries to take environmental issues seriously if we don’t set that example? And just as importantly, on the eve of another difficult and divisive election, how do we expect American voters to take the call to protect the environment seriously if the administration that set the highest bar yet on environmental protection feels that joining in the race for elusive oil reserves is still setting the highest possible standards?

Images: Chukchi Sea – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Pick up sticks – Bananaana04; Canadian ice breaker – Tatiana Pichugina