Obama Suspends Offshore Arctic Drilling

By Libby Casey

President Obama has put offshore drilling in the arctic on hold.  

He announced his decision at a White House press conference today:

We will suspend the planned exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska.

The move blocks Shell from its plans to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this summer.  The moratorium is expected to last until next year.

The president says the step is necessary in light of last month’s oil drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  He’s also halting new permits for deep-water wells for six months, and suspending action on dozens of deepwater wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s also been made clear by this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves.

The President cited the fact that the Interior Department only has 30 days to review exploration plans submitted by oil companies, leaving no time, he said, for appropriate environmental review.

Obama’s decisions were prompted by a report delivered to the White House today by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, outlining the safety and environmental issues of offshore drilling.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation is reacting with disappointment to the news.

Senator Mark Begich says while the Gulf accident should mean stronger oversight, Shell has made an “effective case” for safe exploration this summer.

It just means more delay, a loss of potential jobs in Alaska now and in the future, keeps us buying foreign oil, doesn’t get us on a pathway of a long term energy plan that includes … at some point we’ll be readdressing this issue, we’ll have the OCS as part of the equation.  I’m hopeful this is not a stop that is now and not forever.

Begich says he’ll work with the White House to ensure drilling does eventually happen.  Senator Lisa Murkowski agrees that the Obama Administration should start planning to lift the moratorium next year so work can move forward.

They’ve indicated in direct answer to my question that this is not a calendar year delay.  In other words next May 27 they pull up the file on Shell and say we’ll take a look at it, see if you can go ahead.  In order for Shell to advance,  they need that lead time to mobilize.

Murkowski says despite her confidence in Shell’s plans, her trip this week to see the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico showed her that everything should be done to protect against oil disasters.  She says this waiting time should be used to beef up safety and environmental plans.

It’s an in your face reminder of the risks that are inherent in resource development, oil and gas extraction.  And I want to make sure whether it’s Shell moving forward offshore or any other entity moving offshore Alaska or in the Gulf, I want to make sure that,  to the extent possible, those risks have been reduced.  I think we’re gonna learn a lot about what’s coming out of the gulf now.

Murkowski says for example, she sees the need for preparedness like having more booms on hand, and having oil dispersants that are pre-authorized.

Congressman Don Young responded in a press release to the Obama Administration decision by calling it “irrational and careless,” and said it’s a response to the “hysteria of interest groups.”

Environmental groups are cheering the news.  They’ve been battling to stop Shell, saying that a spill in the icy, remote waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas would be far harder to clean up than the Gulf of Mexico, and disastrous to wildlife and subsistence lifestyles.

Cindy Shogan the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, calls the news bittersweet, because the decision was prompted by the Gulf disaster.

It’s a terrible trend that these accidents happen, and then people stop and think.  So I’m really hoping this time we learn so this never happens again.

Shogan says her group wasn’t sure how the Administration would weigh-in on the Arctic plans, especially with so much focus on stopping the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and making decisions about deepwater drilling there.

I just didn’t know if the administration was really paying attention with all the obvious attention that’s directed at the Gulf.  If they were even thinking about what they had scheduled or planned for the Arctic Ocean this summer.  So I was very relieved when I heard the news.

Groups that were not happy with the new plan include the oil industry lobbyist group the American Petroleum Institute.  It blasted the President’s decision today, calling the hold on drilling will place “a moratorium on economic growth and job creation.”


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