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 23rd and 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
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.