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Shell Comes Up Empty: A Moment of Clarity

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In its search for Arctic oil, Shell spent more than $7 billion, crashed a drilling platform, appears to have misled its shareholders, and risked permanent damage to one of the world’s most unique places. Now, after failing to find enough oil to justify moving forward, the company’s efforts in the Arctic appear to be at an end “for the foreseeable future.” We can see this withdrawal as not just a victory for the Arctic but also as an opportunity to take stock of our unhealthy relationship with fossil fuels. Shell’s announcement could represent a moment of clarity in what up until now has been an increasingly risky scramble for ever more remote oil reserves.


The Arctic is a special place. The interdependent web of ocean ecosystems and seasonal cycles is as rich as it is fragile. It is also inaccessible and unforgiving. Companies drilled for oil in the Arctic Ocean in the 1980s and 1990s and failed. Shell’s recent costly exploration has failed. Both times we ran the risk of spoiling one of the last places on the planet that is largely free of industrial development. Both times we demonstrated that the Arctic is too remote and too dangerous to risk searching for oil.


It’s time to end this foray into the Arctic Ocean and to look to a future of clean, renewable energy and healthy oceans. Even now, oil companies are pushing for access to start drilling along the Atlantic Coast, despite growing opposition from coastal communities and businesses. President Obama should deny future requests for leasing or exploration in both the Arctic and the Atlantic, and should instead focus on protecting those vital ocean resources.


Billions of dollars in subsidies are going to the oil and gas industry, when we could put those tax dollars toward research and development of renewables like solar, wind, or other untapped sources of sustainable energy. There’s only so much oil on this planet. If we’re determined to burn all of it, we will wreak havoc on our climate. We will continue to see ecosystems destroyed by spills, leaks, and explosions. Billions of the world’s most vulnerable people will bear the brunt of the damages from sea level rise, ocean acidification, rising temperatures, and more frequent and intense adverse weather events.


To cling to fossil fuels as our primary source of energy is unimaginative and shortsighted. Undoubtedly, there will be a fossil-fuel free future. The question is, in what condition are we going to reach it? We could do the same thing we’ve been doing for decades, focusing the bulk of our research, development and infrastructure on burning dirty fuels. This approach would rob our children’s future. Without proactive, incremental change, our descendants will be left with an economy, technology, and infrastructure set up almost entirely for a resource that at some point will no longer exist. We should start dealing with that fact sooner rather than later.


Science and creativity can take us far, but more funding is needed as well. Already, developments in sustainable energy have yielded dramatic results. In 2014, the U.S. generated enough wind energy to power 16.7 million homes. Earlier this year, the government of Costa Rica announced that for a period of 75 days, the entire country was being powered by 100 percent renewable energy. We can see continued progress if we invest in technologies like solar and offshore wind, instead of seeking to exploit wild places like the Arctic in the search for hard-to-reach deposits of oil that may or may not be there.


Where oil companies have drilled, they have spilled. We can act now to prevent the next tragedy from being in the Arctic or the Atlantic. Perhaps Shell’s withdrawal represents a critical point in the future of energy production–a moment of calm in which we can look not only at money wasted and risks taken, but also disasters averted.


This could be the moment that we decide that we’re going to pursue safe, clean, and renewable power, protect important ocean resources, and ensure a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.

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