Obama Breaks His Word, Pursues Offshore Drilling in Alaska

Obama Breaks His Word, Pursues Offshore Drilling in Alaska

Alisa Opar
Published: 03/31/2010

In September 2008, mere weeks before the presidential election, Audubon asked John McCain and Barack Obama a series of conservation-themed questions, including one about whether they support drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Obama’s answer was short and clear: “No. I support the efforts of Senator John Kerry and my other colleagues in the Senate to prohibit drilling in the Chukchi Sea.”

It sure looks like he’s going back on his word.

Today the Obama administration announced plans to open up vast areas of America’s waters to oil and natural gas development, including never-before drilled areas in the mid-Atlantic region, eastern Gulf of Mexico, and north coast of Alaska. Over the last year Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the effort to reevaluate previous decisions with the aim of developing oil and gas drilling policies on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) that are intended to help reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, create jobs, and take environmental risks and responsibilities into account.

One bright spot, conservationists say, is that under the plan drilling will be blocked in Alaska's Bristol Bay, an environmentally sensitive area that the Bush administration pushed to open up for offshore drilling in 2007. “With the way stocks are declining around the globe, it’s really important to protect this vibrant fishery, where there’s both native and commercial fishing,” Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s US Arctic Program, told Audubon. “We are very pleased with his decision on Bristol Bay.”

However, the president’s drilling plans, which run through 2017, do call for studying the viability of drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, home to polar bears, endangered North Pacific right whales, walruses, and other wildlife already at risk from climate change. No new drilling leases will be issued in either sea before 2013. Despite the pledge to undertake extensive studies of the ecosystems, many environmental groups were taken aback by the plan.

“Today’s announcement is unfortunately all too typical of what we have seen so far from President Obama – promises of change, a year of ‘deliberation,’ and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush policies as his own,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “Rather than bring about the change we need, this plan will further our national addiction to oil and contribute to global warming, while at the same time directly despoiling the habitat of polar bears, endangered whales, and other imperiled wildlife.”

Conservation groups are concerned that drilling could further imperil the creatures that depend on the seas. “There’s no proven method for cleaning up an oil spill in broken ice,” says Heiman.

Still, Heiman points out, the administration is holding off on new leasing until the completion of science studies by the USGS. “We believe that once they look at the science, they will continue to take this cautious approach,” she says. “We’re going to push very hard to make sure that is the case.”

“The administration’s selective approach to identifying areas for drilling attempts to reflect the reality that some places are simply too fragile to risk. Though it properly emphasizes the role of sound science in making long-term energy decisions, it fails to protect many highly sensitive areas," says Mike Daulton, Audubon's policy director. "We urge the Obama administration to focus on clean energy priorities and to protect America’s special places from the risks of oil drilling.”

For example, the decision doesn’t affect Shell’s leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, purchased during the Bush administration. Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the company’s plans to drill exploratory wells this summer in the water bodies. Lawsuits are pending.

The new drilling plan also calls for eventually opening up two-thirds of the eastern Gulf of Mexico’s oil and gas resources for drilling; proceed with drilling off the coast of Virginia, pending environmental studies; explore the possibility of drilling off the mid- and southern Atlantic coasts, the LA Times reports.

The move comes just before the Senate is expected to take up a climate bill—legislation that was pushed aside last year as health care took center stage. Obama and Senate Democrats have already taken some heat for making concessions on nuclear power and coal in the legislation crafted by Sens. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman. While the new drilling plan surely pleases the oil industry, backlash from legislators and environmental groups might further delay passage of a climate bill.