New and Frozen Frontier Awaits Offshore Oil Drilling
Edward Itta, the former mayor of North Slope Borough and an Inupiat Eskimo, campaigned as a whaler opposed to offshore drilling.
WASHINGTON — Shortly before Thanksgiving in 2010, the leaders of the commission President Obama had appointed to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sat down in the Oval Office to brief him.
After listening to their findings about the BP accident and the safety of deepwater drilling, the president abruptly changed the subject.
“Where are you coming out on the offshore Arctic?” he asked.
William K. Reilly, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency and a commission co-chairman, was startled, as was Carol M. Browner, the president’s top adviser at the time on energy and climate change. Although a proposal by Shell to drill in the Arctic had been a source of dissension, it was not a major focus of the panel’s work.
“It’s not deep water, right?” the president said, noting that Shell’s proposal involved low-pressure wells in 150 feet of water, nothing like BP’s 5,000-foot high-pressure well that blew out in the gulf.
“What that told me,” Mr. Reilly later recounted, “was that the president had already gotten deeply into this issue and was prepared to go forward.”
The president’s preoccupation with the Arctic proposal, even as the nation was still reeling from the BP spill, was the first hint that Shell’s audacious plan to drill in waters previously considered untouchable had gone from improbable to inevitable.
Barring a successful last-minute legal challenge by environmental groups, Shell will begin drilling test wells off the coast of northern Alaska in July, opening a new frontier in domestic oil exploration and accelerating a global rush to tap the untold resources beneath the frozen ocean.
It is a moment of major promise and considerable danger.
Industry experts and national security officials view the Alaskan Arctic as the last great domestic oil prospect, one that over time could bring the country a giant step closer to cutting its dependence on foreign oil.
But many Alaska Natives and environmental advocates say drilling threatens wildlife and pristine shorelines, and perpetuates the nation’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels.
In blessing Shell’s move into the Arctic, Mr. Obama continues his efforts to balance business and environmental interests, seemingly project by project. He pleased environmentalists by delaying the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada and by adopting tough air standards for power plants, yet he has also delighted business concerns by rejecting an ozone standard deemed too costly to the economy.