Why Obama's Arctic drilling decision is hardly the last word

President Obama will allow drilling in Arctic waters, but the next president could undo that decision. And the Democratic candidates say they will.

Daniella Beccaria/seattlepi.c­om/AP/File
The Transocean Polar Pioneer, a semisubmersible drilling unit leased by Royal Dutch Shell, arrives in Port Angeles, Wash., aboard a transport ship earlier this year. Its eventual destination is the Arctic, with the US government on Monday giving Shell the final permit it needs to drill for oil off Alaska's northwest coast.

It didn’t take long for green groups to find a new environmental knight in shining armor.

Just a day after President Obama gave Shell permission to drill for oil in the Alaskan Arctic, Hillary Clinton – the leading Democratic candidate to succeed him in 2017 – came out in opposition.

Even before Mrs. Clinton's pronouncement, fellow Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont had said they opposing drilling in the Arctic, identifying the issue as a way to distinguish themselves not only from Republican challengers, but also from Mr. Obama.

Their opposition could be significant, since the next president is expected to play a crucial role in the long-term future of Arctic drilling, industry observers say. The executive powers that Obama is now wielding to open the Arctic to drilling could be used by the next president to reverse course. With oil extraction still a decade and a half away, Obama's decision this week is hardly the final word.

This gives environmentalists hope that drilling in the American Arctic might never come to pass. But with Republican presidential candidates favoring the move, it also makes next year's presidential election hugely important to the future of the plan.

Shell is “probably 10 years away from putting any permanent structures up there,” says Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. “The next president will have the same kind of decisions, in a more meaningful way, on their plate.”

Arctic drilling is a long-term enterprise. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden has said oil extraction from the company's leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea likely won’t start until 2030, and the terms of the deal show the go-slow approach.

This summer, the company is only being allowed to drill two exploratory wells down to a depth of 8,000 feet – into potentially oil-bearing rock. The company isn’t allowed to drill the two wells simultaneously, and the Chukchi Sea’s open-water exploration season ends Sept. 28, so the company will likely apply for permission to continue its exploratory work next summer. In addition, the lease Shell purchased in 2008 expires in 2020, meaning it would have to renew the lease during the next president’s first term, Mr. Manuel notes.

This gradual pace will give environmental activists opportunities to pressure the White House to stop Arctic drilling, says Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. And given recent comments by some leading presidential candidates, he’s optimistic that pressure could yield results.

“We’re absolutely very excited by the opposition from major political figures to offshore drilling,” he says. “I definitely think that we could put a halt – and should put a halt – to Arctic drilling.”

Obama’s decision to allow more-expansive exploratory drilling in the Arctic has left many liberal Democrats and environmental groups feeling betrayed, especially given his recent moves to address climate change, which have seen America vault from perceived climate change laggards to leaders.

But the decision is consistent with Obama’s “all of the above” approach to energy development. While he has worked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s biggest polluters and to expand America’s renewable energy industry, he has maintained that America needs to be weaned slowly off fossil fuels.

“We cannot make that transition overnight,” White House spokesman Frank Benenati told the Associated Press earlier this week.

The president is also seeking to expand offshore drilling along the Atlantic coastline. The administration is developing a five-year plan to sell federal leases for offshore oil and gas development from 2017 to 2022. But that, too, could be a target for an incoming president.

“These [plans] have always been influenced by politics,” says Manuel of the Sierra Club, adding that a new president could scrap Obama's plan, implement a transition plan, and finalize a new five-year plan by 2018. Obama pursued a similar course in scrapping George W. Bush's five-year drilling plan and replacing it in 2010.

Of course, if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, the government could adopt an even more pro-drilling approach. For example, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush countered Clinton with a tweet: “We should embrace the energy revolution to lower prices and create US jobs.”

The Arctic is estimated to contain about 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas – 34 million barrels of oil in US water alone, Reuters reported in April. Shell insists it can drill there safely. But environmentalists are skeptical. If there is a spill, the nearest cleanup crew is about 1,000 miles away. If the spill occurred later in the season, Manuel adds, sea ice could freeze over the spill and hamper attempts to cap the well.

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