President Obama’s Alaska visit yields little regarding Arctic Ocean drilling

Photo: Eric Keto/Alaska Public Media
Photo: Eric Keto/Alaska Public Media

Throughout President Obama’s tour of Alaska last week, he spoke at length about efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. He spoke very little about his support for Arctic Ocean drilling.

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The drilling policy could affect the global climate much more than any of Obama’s climate-friendly initiatives.

The president wrapped up his climate-change tour of Alaska in Kotzebue, just above the Arctic Circle.

“One of the reasons I came up here is to really focus on what is probably the biggest challenge our planet faces,” President Obama said. “If there’s one thing that threatens opportunity and prosperity for everybody, wherever we live, it’s the threat of a changing climate.”

In Kotzebue, Obama spoke of climate-friendly initiatives big and small around the state.

“And I know you guys have started putting up solar panels and wind turbines around Kotzebue,” President Obama said.

And he highlighted his government’s biggest initiative of all aimed at helping the climate: the national Clean Power Plan.

“Last month, I announced the first set of nationwide standards to end the limitless carbon emissions from our power plants, and that’s the most important step we’ve ever taken on climate change,” President Obama said.

Alaska is exempt from that plan. The president did not mention one of his policies that does have direct relevance in Kotzebue and the rest of Alaska.

Kotzebue is one of the Western Alaska port towns getting business from the quest for oil in the Chukchi Sea. Shell’s Arctic Challenger oil-spill barge and other support vessels are based in Kotzebue Sound.

The Obama administration gave Shell the green light in August to drill into oil-bearing rocks beneath the Chukchi Sea.

The U.S. Geological Survey says more than 20 billion barrels of oil can be recovered from beneath the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. If that oil is burned in engines and homes and businesses, it would pump many times more carbon dioxide into the sky than the president’s big clean power plan would keep out of the sky.

“Approximately 15-times greater,” Lois Epstein, an engineer with The Wilderness Society in Anchorage, said. Her group has been opposed to drilling in the Arctic Ocean for mostly non-climate reasons.

She says Obama’s approval of Arctic drilling is inconsistent with his big push to fight climate change.

“The administration should be at least trying to be consistent in their decision making,” Epstein said. “They have chosen not to be consistent, and that will have climate consequences.”

Other environmentalists have been less diplomatic, calling Obama hypocritical or even schizophrenic when it comes to climate change.

Shell Alaska spokesperson Meg Baldino declined to comment on the climate impacts of Arctic Ocean oil.

But earlier this year, the head of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben Van Beurden, said he agrees the world can’t burn all of its fossil fuels and avoid dangerous climate change.

“I accept the fact that having the climate change beyond 2 degrees C is probably highly undesirable, and we should do everything to prevent that from happening,” he said.

Van Beurden spoke with the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in England.

Even though this year’s plummeting oil prices reflect a world awash in oil, the Shell CEO said his company can’t stop looking for new sources, in the Arctic or elsewhere.

“I think to just say we can do without hydrocarbons, and we don’t need them any more, stop exploring for them because they are coming out of our ears already—that is not quite an accurate reflection for a company like us,” Van Beurden said.

Van Beurden put responsibility for opening the Arctic Ocean to drilling on the U.S. government.

“The opening up of the Arctic is not our decision. It’s the decision of an Arctic nation, in this case, the United States,” he said. “And it’s our task to figure out: Can we do this responsibly? Can we do this profitably? Can it be done at all? If the answer to all that is yes, then we should consider it as an investment opportunity.”

Shell officials say it could be 10 to 20 years before any oil from the Chukchi Sea would be available as fuel. That would mean Arctic drilling could remain controversial for a long time.

During the president’s three-day tour, White House handlers didn’t let journalists ask him any questions, with the exception of an exclusive interview and photo shoot with Rolling Stone magazine.