The drilling and fracking president

October 5, 2015

How did Barack Obama, the candidate who promised action on climate change, become Barack Obama, the "drill baby drill" president? Ragina Johnson explains.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S visit to Alaska last month was aimed, in his words, to put "a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans' lives right now."

Strong rhetoric from the first sitting president to visit the Arctic--a president who stood out from his predecessor simply because he uttered the words "climate change."

But once again, Barack Obama's actions speak louder than his words. Just prior to his trip to Alaska, Obama approved a deepwater-drilling lease for Royal Dutch Shell to resume oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska.

The lease was approved despite previous exploration attempts by Shell that ended in disaster. In 2012, for example, Shell was forced to stop operations in the Arctic after a drilling rig "became detached in ferocious weather and crashed into an unspoiled, uninhabited island called Sitkalidak," as Belfast Telegraph columnist Eamonn McCann described it.

Barack Obama speaks in Alaska on a summit meeting on climate change
Barack Obama speaks in Alaska on a summit meeting on climate change (State Department)

At the end of September, Royal Dutch Shell announced unexpectedly that it would suspend its Arctic project, "after finding insufficient oil and gas in one of its exploratory wells to justify costly development," the Washington Post reported.

If Shell's greedy executives determined that the project was unworkable, why wasn't there some hesitation in the Obama administration to green-lighting the project?

WHILE SOME commentators seemed baffled when Obama okayed deepwater drilling in the Arctic at the same time that he was calling for action against climate change, his hypocrisy can be explained by the development of a fossil fuel boom in the U.S.

Since taking office, part of the Obama administration strategy for reviving and strengthening the economy involves gaining access to cheap energy and fossil fuels to increase the profitability of U.S. corporations. This is why a president who won the White House promising action on climate change has championed increased fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Under Obama, the ecologically disastrous method of hydraulic fracturing--pumping a toxic mix of water and chemicals into shale rock at high pressure to release natural gas and oil--has become a national phenomenon. Fracking has devastated communities around the country by spoiling groundwater supplies, among other effects.

The pursuit of oil far out to sea in the Arctic likewise threatens indigenous communities and working people living in Alaska, and not only through spills and pollution during extraction.

The effects of global warming are already being felt by the Inupiat people, who Obama visited in Kotzbue during his Alaska trip. Changes in temperature and melting polar ice are endangering species like the polar bear, bowhead whales and ringed seals, and changing the migration patterns of musk ox and caribou--all animals that are connected to the culture and livelihood of Inupiat hunters, fishermen and Alaskan communities.

The crisis facing these villages because of climate change isn't a new story, as the radio program Science Friday explained:

In 2008, the Inupiat village of Kivalina, Alaska, sued 24 fossil fuel companies for the destruction of its homeland, a seven-mile barrier island on Alaska's Chukchi Sea. The cause of the destruction, the village contended, was climate change. Without thick winter sea ice to buffer Kivalina from storms, surges have ripped through the island's seawalls and taken out as much as 70 feet of coastline at a time.

Environmental justice and indigenous organizations filed the suit in 2008, in solidarity with the 400 Kivalina residents, in the hopes of drawing much-needed attention to the crisis they faced, largely ignored by the U.S. government and the media. The suit asked for some $100 million to $400 million in relocation costs to be paid out by fossil fuel companies to Kivalina. The island is estimated to be underwater by 2025, but U.S. federal courts at every level, including the Supreme Court, decided the suit had no merit.

So what was the public excuse for Obama's contradictory policy of talking about climate change, but promoting more fossil fuel extraction?

He and his administration say that the U.S. can't phase out fossil fuel use right away, so it is better to have U.S. corporations extracting the oil and doing it "safely."

But "safe" isn't the word that comes to mind when you think about the recent oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. Or the catastrophic BP spill from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Or the countless leaks from the network of oil pipelines that crisscross the U.S. Or the "bomb" trains carrying oil and oil products that have detonated and destroyed towns like Lac-Mégantic in Quebec.

"Safe" isn't the priority for U.S. corporations, nor the political elite that rules the Washington system. They see geopolitical influence to be built up and potential profits to be made by controlling Arctic oil, even if the latest Shell initiative didn't work out.

THE EFFECTS of climate change, extreme weather conditions and ecological crisis certainly aren't confined to the polar North, of course.

This past August was the hottest August ever recorded. Growing numbers of wildfires are burning across the Western U.S.--"nearly 9 million acres have gone up in flames compared with close to 3 million over the same period in 2014," according to CNN.

Then there is California's historic drought, now continuing into its fourth year. The state got its latest taste of apocalyptic drama in late September when a reservoir in the northeast was found completely drained overnight, leaving thousands of dead fish behind.

Residents near the Mountain Meadows Reservoir, which is owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, say the energy company gave no prior notice of its intension to drain the lake, which could have allowed the fish to be transferred to another water source.

Another example of extreme weather conditions came in Utah last month, when flash flooding killed 20 people--and now, ironically, California could experience the same fate. El Niño weather conditions are building up and will bring much needed rains to California. But experts worry that the ground is too parched to absorb the downpours. Thus, in Los Angeles, recent storms brought chaos rather than relief from the drought, causing mudslides and severe soil erosion.

All this paints a grim picture of the emerging ecological and social crisis. Speaking about the state's drought and wildfires, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared, "This is the future!"

It's not a future we should accept.

WHILE OBAMA and other world leaders wrangle over who will get the last supplies of oil, coal and gas out of the earth, the dead end strategy of extracting and burning more fossil fuels isn't lost on growing numbers of people.

Obama faced protests by environmental and indigenous groups in Anchorage during his Alaska trip. In July, protesters in kayaks and hanging from bridges tried to block the icebreaker Fennica as it transported Royal Dutch Shell's drilling rig equipment from Oregon in July.

The movement to stop Shell was carrying on a tradition of resistance against fossil fuel extraction--from Idle No More and First Nations and Indigenous communities fighting to uphold treaties in order to protect the environment, to actions by environmental activists and labor unions against the construction of KXL pipeline, and much more.

Obama's Alaska visit comes ahead of negotiations at the UN Climate Summit in Paris at the end of November, where the U.S. plans to portray itself as a leader in reducing CO2 emissions, while only promising to cut emissions to about half the level that's needed.

Our movement must demand a different future than the one being promised by the energy corporations and their friends in government. The world this global elite is fighting for is one in which the earth's resources are plundered without end to keep profits flowing, despite a burning planet.

The world we must fight for is one in which ecological sustainability and justice are key; where human rights and democracy are front and center. The fight for ecological justice and to confront global warming needs to be central to all our struggles to come.

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