Arctic drilling is a threat to America’s national security. Here’s why.

By By Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) - 09/13/16 06:13 PM EDT

As members of Congress and veterans of the U.S. military, we know human-caused climate change is real and poses a significant threat to America’s national security. Our nation’s military leaders agree, and the Pentagon is already engaged in extensive planning to counter the impacts of a changing climate on our security interests.

Unfortunately, the oil industry and its allies have a different perspective and different priorities. They are once again calling for expanded drilling in the Arctic, arguing that failing to do so would somehow undermine our national defense. In fact, the opposite is true — oil exploration in the Arctic is directly contrary to our interests and should be strenuously opposed by every American who cares about preserving not just our environment but our nation’s security.

Climate change has the potential to dramatically increase instability across the developing world, unleashing a host of new threats. Shifting weather patterns and rising sea levels could displace huge numbers of people, increase food shortages, abet the spread of disease and intensify the competition for scarce resources. These forces will stretch already weak governments to the breaking point, contributing to state failure and creating the conditions for extremism and authoritarianism. Our military will inevitably be called upon to meet these challenges.

Thankfully, President Obama has worked doggedly to convince other nations, including major emitters like China and India, to join us in efforts to reduce emissions and accelerate the transition to clean energy. The result was the historic Paris Agreement, the first-ever truly global climate deal, adopted by 195 countries. We’ve hit a major turning point, but the science is clear that we have to do more to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption. 

In the Arctic, Obama faces a pivotal climate decision before he leaves office. The temperature in the region is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and the resultant loss of sea ice has spurred oil companies in recent years to seek to drill in America’s portion of the Arctic Ocean. Although Shell and other companies have halted their efforts over the past year, new Arctic lease sales are contemplated in the Interior Department’s draft offshore drilling plan for the years 2017–2022, and the oil industry is pushing hard to retain those leases when the plan is finalized later this year.

While there are many reasons to oppose Arctic drilling, from preserving the pristine environment to the alarming lack of infrastructure needed to contain or clean up a spill, a key one is that Arctic drilling represents a long-term investment in more fossil fuels, a path that cannot be reconciled with successfully addressing climate change.

Because the Arctic Ocean is such a remote and unforgiving place, oil produced there won’t reach consumers for two or three decades due to the long lead times required to make the necessary infrastructure investments. That’s well past the point when the world needs to have transitioned toward cleaner fuels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In addition, new research published in the leading journal Nature specifically calls out Arctic drilling as incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. It’s one reason why the Democratic Party platform and Hillary Clinton both oppose Arctic drilling.

Obama has already taken significant steps to combat climate change, and he has a unique opportunity to cement his legacy in the coming months. Removing Arctic leases from the five-year plan would take away the near-term threat, but it would not preclude a future administration from moving forward with drilling in the region. The president can align our government’s policy with the latest climate research by using his authority to permanently withdraw the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas development, sending a powerful market signal that the era of ever-expanding fossil fuel production into frontier areas like the Arctic is over.

As we saw in Paris, when the United States leads, other nations join us in elevating their climate ambitions. That’s why we hope for the sake of our national security that President Obama will seize the opportunity to continue his climate leadership and permanently ban drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean. We have an urgent responsibility to take the necessary steps today that will allow future generations to avoid climate chaos and the security threats it poses.

Gallego has served the state of Arizona in the House since 2011. A former Marine corporal, he sits on the Armed Services and the Natural Resources committees. Lieu has served California’s 33rd District since 2015. He sits on the Budget and Oversight committees and was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.