Royal Dutch Shell will win federal permits to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean this summer, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar predicted Tuesday, foreshadowing what could become a watershed event for the remote, oil-rich region.
Addressing reporters via conference call from Norway, where he's attending an international summit on Arctic drilling, Salazar also revealed plans for two future sales of offshore oil leases in Alaska: one for the Chukchi Sea in 2016 and one for the Beaufort Sea in 2017. This is part of the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy strategy, he said, which includes a pledge to "do everything possible to proceed safely and responsibly" and to be ready "in the event of an incident."
By "incident," Salazar means oil spill — the main concern of environmentalists who have spent years fighting to keep oil rigs out of Alaskan waters. Salazar says he shares that concern, acknowledging critics' arguments that rough seas, severe weather and remote geography make the Arctic impractical for oil drilling. "I can tell you that President Obama and his administration take very seriously the complexities and unique conditions in the Arctic," he said Tuesday. "It is a frontier."
Nonetheless, Salazar contends Shell is committed to safety, from its updated emergency plans to a new oil-spill containment device it successfully tested Monday in Puget Sound. Along with other recent safety measures, the company has convinced Salazar it can handle a worst-case scenario like the 2010 Gulf oil spill. "I believe there will not be an oil spill," he tells the New York Times. "If there is, I think the response capability is there to arrest the problem very quickly and minimize damage. If I were not confident that would happen, I would not let the permits go forward."
Shell's quest to drill off the Alaskan coast dates back to 2005, when it began leasing sections of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. It has spent $4 billion on its Arctic aspirations since then, and now that investment seems poised to pay off. While Salazar emphasized that regulators are still reviewing Shell's applications — which seek rights to drill up to five wells in the Beaufort-Chukchi region — his confidence in the outcome suggests a sea change is in store for Alaska's continental shelf.
The Obama administration has been pushing for an overall expansion of U.S. energy production lately, borrowing Republicans' longtime "all of the above" mantra. Although it rejected the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in January, citing undue pressure from Congress, the administration has invited new applications both for that and for similar projects. On Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a new 115-mile oil pipeline through Texas, and last week the Interior Department drew $1.7 billion in bids for new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. A variety of solar, wind and natural gas projects are also slated for public lands across the country, part of a plan President Obama touted in this year's State of the Union address.
But despite this inclusive attitude, many environmentalists expressed renewed concern Tuesday about the Obama administration's enthusiasm for Arctic oil. "This invites an environmental nightmare of unimaginable proportions," said Natural Resources Defense Council president Frances Beinecke in an emailed statement. "There's no way to prevent an offshore blowout, or to quickly cap one, as we saw so tragically in the Gulf of Mexico. Nobody knows how to contain or clean up a spill in the harsh and remote seas of the Arctic. Unless and until we can, we have no business imperiling the last wild ocean on the planet for the sake of oil company profits."
Some critics do see a silver lining, though, noting that future lease sales will be delayed for four years to allow more time for scientific study. "It's becoming clearer and clearer that this administration has gotten the message that the Arctic is different and needs a more careful approach," Marilyn Heiman of the Pew Environment Group tells the Times. "We're still disappointed they are talking about new leasing when they already have millions of acres under lease. But the fact they pushed it back to do science and study community and subsistence needs sends a very strong signal."
Whenever it happens, the Alaska leasing will be "targeted," Salazar said Tuesday, with buffer zones that exclude areas deemed critical for native wildlife and subsistence hunters. But that doesn't allay all ecological concerns — as some environmentalists point out, while oil companies may adhere to such guidelines, oil spills probably won't. "There seems to be a little myopia about what the risks are," NRDC lawyer Niel Lawrence tells the Houston Chronicle. "Just take a look at a map of what happened with Deepwater Horizon. Limiting the drill area isn't limiting the spill area."
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