A “Science-Based Policy” on Arctic Ocean Oil Drilling in the United States

by Alison Weisburger On January 30th, 2012, the PEW Environment Group and the Ocean Conservancy published a joint full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging President Obama to “Base Arctic Ocean Drilling Decisions on Science, not Politics.” They cite an open letter sent to the President on January 23rdand signed by over 500 scientists that argues for delaying new oil and gas activity in the U.S. Arctic Ocean until more scientific research is completed. The ad and letter implore the President and his administration to “stand by your commitment to scientific integrity”.

Just over two weeks after the PEW advertisement, on February 17th 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a press release heralding “Obama Administration Announces Major Steps toward Science-Based Energy Exploration in the Arctic”.  The Obama Administration insists that the decision to move forward with development is “informed by the latest science”. At the press conference, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar highlighted the various initiatives that his Department had to ensure they would bring “the best available science to energy-related decisions in the Arctic”.

Both the environmental advocacy groups as well as the U.S. government assert that their stance on whether or not to proceed with drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean at this time is based on science. Yet, their views continue to be diametrically opposed despite their public affirmations that scientific information validates each of their positions. If the “science” that both of these groups speak of is truly the systematic, disimpassioned study of facts and truths, how is it possible that their arguments and conclusions are conflicting? I would argue that neither the U.S. government nor environmental advocacy groups can avoid politics in their supposedly “science-based” recommendations for Arctic Ocean oil drilling. Both the environmental groups and the government have value-based priorities that inevitably influence their construal of the body of scientific research.

On the one hand, the Obama administration has displayed a commitment to scientific work and exhaustive review process of plans presented by companies for Arctic Ocean drilling. They have several programs aimed toward expanding scientific research in the Arctic, sharing data, and evaluating further science needs, such as a report on the state of Arctic marine science completed by the U.S. Geological Survey in June of 2011. However, it cannot be denied that the U.S. government has an inherent interest in pursuing Arctic Ocean oil drilling for the economic opportunity it presents for Alaska, and the impact it could have on domestic oil production. Thus, whilst they do not claim that the existing scientific research is fully comprehensive, they argue that there is enough scientific knowledge to support safe and responsible development. Hence, they avow that they embrace “science-based” policy.

Pew: Arctic Ocean Energy Development, February 24, 2012

Edward Itta, Vice Adm. Roger T. Rufe, Marilyn Heiman,
Fran Ulmer, Michael R. Bromwich
In contrast, PEW contends that more time is needed for further research in order to truly formulate a policy that is based on science. As Marilyn Heiman, director of the Arctic program at PEW stated in an interview, “This decision is premature. We need an additional two or three years study to get the science right, to ensure proper monitoring and to protect wildlife.” In other words, in their interpretation the science (or rather, the lack thereof) dictates that the most sound policy decision would be to delay any Arctic Ocean oil drilling. While they are certainly accurate in their assertion that certain gaps in scientific knowledge remain, it is also clear that Pew’s mandate as an environmental advocacy group shapes their conclusion about the level of scientific knowledge needed to proceed safely. Moreover, their arguments conflate a call for “science-based” decisions with advocating the precautionary principle, the latter being their actual point of disagreement with the Obama administration. 

In this case, both environmental advocacy groups like PEW and the U.S. government have demonstrated a serious and sound commitment to scientific research in the Arctic and making decisions based on that science. Nevertheless, they still come to opposing conclusions because  their application of scientific knowledge in decision-making is inevitably shaped by their underlying interests. Perhaps a more productive discussion would rest on the basis that their differing stances on Arctic Ocean oil drilling stem not from some use or misuse of scientific fact in their estimation of the situation, but rather from conflicting overarching philosophies that both find a legitimate way to draw upon science for support. 

There is a need for more transparency about the political stance on BOTH sides of this argument, rather than the current attempts to eclipse the opinionated stances on Arctic Ocean oil drilling with claims that one position or another is “science-based”.  Public campaigns like that of Pew’s Arctic program should certainly be lauded for their illumination of the multifaceted nature of a difficult issue, and their promotion of a counterbalancing stance. However, the parties on both sides of this argument need to act more cautiously in using science as a sword or shield in a battle that is fundamentally about values.