The Slatest

Hillary Clinton Breaks From Obama on Arctic Oil Drilling

“Kayaktivists” protest the arrival of the Polar Pioneer, an oil drilling rig owned by Shell, on May 14, 2015 in Seattle.

Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

In recent weeks, the Arctic has surged to the fore of climate politics. And on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton kept it in the spotlight by breaking with President Obama to declare herself against Arctic oil drilling.

Coming just one day after the Obama administration gave final approval for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s northwest coast, Clinton’s statement is “her first major break with President Obama over environmental policy,” according to the Washington Post. It’s also a smart campaign move.

Clinton, who has emphasized climate change action as a core campaign pledge from the day she announced her presidential run, has been losing ground in the polls lately to Bernie Sanders, who’s been attacking her on global warming. In July she was heckled at a town hall-style campaign event in New Hampshire for an inelegant response to a question on the Keystone XL pipeline. Though an improvement on Obama’s climate record, her first detailed policy proposals on climate change were underwhelming. Tuesday’s statement is consistent with a leftward Clinton tilt on issues where the left position is actually fairly popular.

Slate’s Josh Voorhees has argued that, politically, Clinton doesn’t necessarily need to have bold climate change plans because pretty much anything she proposes would be head-and-shoulders above a presumptive Republican nominee’s plans. Politico basically agreed, saying: “Arctic drilling is a relatively safe issue on which to get to the left of the White House, allowing her to earn plaudits from environmentalists without much risk of stirring animosity from the rest of her party.” Exhibit A: Clinton’s statement on Arctic drilling was immediately lambasted by Jeb Bush and praised by environmental campaigners.

According to climate science, an expansion of Arctic drilling is indefensible. A study by British climate scientists earlier this year was the first to highlight the incompatibility of Arctic oil and gas drilling with internationally agreed-upon targets to limit the effects of climate change. Clinton’s statement provides environmentalists with hope, however tenuous, that science-based calls for rapid decarbonization of the American economy may still be possible to achieve.

Obama hasn’t quite been able to make that connection. Later this month Obama is planning a climate-themed visit to Alaska, where he will attend a summit of Arctic nations. “I’m going because Alaskans are on the front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century—climate change,” Obama said in a video address recently posted on the White House website. Obama’s trip will be the first to the Alaskan Arctic by a sitting president, and Clinton’s comment means he will likely face increased scrutiny while there for the inconsistency of allowing Shell’s drilling activity to move forward.