How Does Obama’s Approval of Alaskan Oil Exploration Change Things?

Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Remember early this year when the Obama administration made the following statement regarding the president’s protection of “untouched marine wilderness” in the state of Alaska?

“Today, the President is taking another step to protect our most valuable natural resources. Relying on an athority used by presidents of both parties since Eisenhower, President Obama is designating 9.8 million acres in the waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s coast as of-limits to consideration for future oil and gas leasing.”

Those were good times. But protection of a region of these waters does not mean complete protection in the surrounding areas — far from it. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) approved Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.’s “multi-year Exploration Plan for the Chukchi Sea” as of May 11. The Bureau, a government office working under the Department of the Interior with responsibilities directly related to offshore exploration, announced the approval this week with a predictable combination of cautious wording and economic optimism.

“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea,” stated BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper. How many modifiers can one add to a statement? We have thoughtful, careful, and potential right in a row, followed by the guarantee that “as we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

The crux of the release is that President Barack Obama’s efforts for environmental conservation only go so far. His record on the environment has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, he’s gone head to head even to his detriment to avoid rushing decisions on the Keystone XL Pipeline, and his clean air efforts for carbon pollution standards was a major fight that he won on behalf of environmental policy. His move to protect the region in January 2015 was not a blanket protection, and in his the White House statement it was detailed that economic opportunities in the energy sector would be pursued in balance with environmental conservation. On the other hand, Obama has been oft-criticized for policy that doesn’t go far enough, that’s a step forward with toe instead of the heel for better footing on environmentally friendly ground — and this may be another perfect example of that situation.

Photo: Tim  Aubry / AFP / Getty Images

Tim Aubry / AFP / Getty Images

Part of the reason that the Chukchi Sea region needed protection was not only that it represents important territory for cultural history of Alaska and an environmentally sensitive part of the Alaskan ecological structure, but also because it’s a particularly dangerous area to drill in.

Drilling isn’t imminent of course, rather vessels have merely been mobilized in expectation of other required steps being taken to gain the proper sanctions needed. According to NPR, Megan Baldino, spokesperson for Shell, stated that government permission was one major step in the right direction but that Shell would still need to obtain permits “in a timely manner” in order to proceed with any drilling in the area.

Drilling would include six wells, according to BOEM, in the Burger Prospect. “Shell does not now have carte blanche to go out and execute this plan,” said John Callahan, BOEM spokesperson, according to NPR. However, the fact remains that the intention to begin drilling is there, and with government support in place, the company is on track to begin eventually. Environmentalists argue that the company’s track record in combination with the particularly dangerous territory for drilling makes for a concerning combination — and puts Obama’s choice under a more critical spotlight.

“Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth,” said Susan Murray, vice president of Oceana Pacific, in statement. “Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk,” she said, going on to cite the Deepwater Horizon disaster as evidence of past irresponsible actions.

This is a common issue that comes up with environmentalists, used as proof of a less-than responsible history and the consequences that resulted — consequences that have the potential to be risked in the Chukchi Sea soon as well.

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