Forget Keystone. Will Podesta Put Arctic Drilling in His Crosshairs?

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Oil companies aren't scaling bridges, but they have their own issues with Obama's Arctic drilling plan.
National Journal
Ben Geman
Jan. 2, 2014, 12:18 a.m.

The White House re­cently put out word that John Podesta won’t get near the Key­stone Pipeline re­view when the Demo­crat­ic uber-strategist — and Key­stone foe — joins Pres­id­ent Obama’s in­ner circle.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists hope Podesta will in­flu­ence an­oth­er high-stakes battle over oil de­vel­op­ment.

Podesta op­poses oil drilling in Arc­tic wa­ters off Alaska’s coast, and he’s ar­riv­ing as Obama’s In­teri­or De­part­ment is fa­cing some big de­cisions about the re­gion.

“Even after they said he was go­ing to re­cuse him­self on Key­stone, we are still op­tim­ist­ic about his role on the Ar­tic [Na­tion­al Wild­life] Refuge and Arc­tic Ocean is­sues,” said Ath­an Manuel, the Si­erra Club’s dir­ect­or of lands pro­tec­tion.

Podesta, in Janu­ary of 2013, penned a column for Bloomberg with former White House en­ergy czar Car­ol Brown­er that ar­gues, “There is no safe and re­spons­ible way to drill for oil and gas in the Arc­tic Ocean.”

Brown­er is a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, the lib­er­al think tank and ad­vocacy group that Podesta foun­ded a dec­ade ago.

Wheth­er Podesta will en­gage on the top­ic re­mains un­clear.

White House spokes­man Jay Car­ney said in mid-Decem­ber that Podesta, who is join­ing the White House for a year, will have a “par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on is­sues of en­ergy and cli­mate change.”

But a White House aide con­tac­ted by Na­tion­al Journ­al did not ad­dress wheth­er Podesta’s port­fo­lio will in­clude Arc­tic drilling.

In­teri­or did not re­spond to an in­quiry.

It’s something to watch as 2014 be­gins.

The Bloomberg column puts Podesta to the left of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has cau­tiously en­dorsed oil drilling off Alaska’s north­ern coast along­side beefed-up safe­guards. But the scope and tim­ing of what’s al­lowed isn’t fully settled.

In­teri­or is plan­ning to auc­tion new leases in Arc­tic wa­ters off Alaska’s north­ern coast in 2016 and 2017, but must first de­cide on the geo­graph­ic scope of the sales and oth­er spe­cif­ics that com­pan­ies and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists will closely mon­it­or.

In the near­er term, In­teri­or is work­ing on a set of Arc­tic-spe­cif­ic drilling safety stand­ards; a pro­pos­al is ex­pec­ted early this year.

In­teri­or is also re­view­ing a scaled-back Arc­tic ex­plor­a­tion plan from Roy­al Dutch Shell. The oil gi­ant’s mis­hap-laden, 2012 launch of pre­lim­in­ary de­vel­op­ment promp­ted Podesta and Brown­er to ar­gue that they no longer be­lieve Arc­tic drilling should pro­ceed.

Shell re­treated and didn’t seek to drill in 2013, but the com­pany is now seek­ing ap­prov­al from reg­u­lat­ors to re­launch a more lim­ited ex­plor­at­ory drilling ef­fort as soon as next sum­mer.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists hope Podesta will be an ally as In­teri­or faces im­port­ant de­cisions.

“We hope that he is go­ing be the per­son who takes a step back and looks at all of these de­cisions as a whole and slows down and … po­ten­tially stops some of the pro­cesses,” said Kristen Miller, gov­ern­ment-af­fairs dir­ect­or for the Alaska Wil­der­ness League.

Act­iv­ists want drilling of ex­ist­ing leases and new auc­tions hal­ted or delayed, ar­guing that fed­er­al of­fi­cials have yet to en­sure enough pro­tec­tions for wild­life and for nat­ive Alaskans who rely on the Arc­tic wa­ters for food.

“Si­erra Club would still ul­ti­mately make the case that they should can­cel those lease sales,” Manuel said.

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