On Energy, Obama’s Got No Friends In Alaska

Environmentalists don’t like permits for offshore drilling, while state officials want to see more.

Frostpaw the Polar Bear will be part of environmental protests during President Obama's visit to Alaska.
Courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Aug. 28, 2015, 5 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama vis­its the Alaskan Arc­tic this week­end, he’ll be greeted by a fa­mil­i­ar face: Frost­paw the Po­lar Bear.

Al­though Obama is trav­el­ing to Alaska to talk up the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s work on com­bat­ing cli­mate change, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are eager to point out what they see as a hy­po­crit­ic­al de­cision to ap­prove Shell’s bid to drill for oil in the Arc­tic. And they’ll use Obama’s three-day ap­pear­ance in the state to shine a spot­light on what they’re call­ing a black mark on his re­cord.

Greens are or­gan­iz­ing a rally across the street from a State De­part­ment con­fer­ence in An­chor­age where the pres­id­ent will speak Monday. The lib­er­al group CREDO Ac­tion is even cir­cu­lat­ing avideo and pe­ti­tion com­par­ing Obama’s trip to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s tone-deaf de­clar­a­tion of “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished” in Ir­aq.

“We want Obama’s ac­tions to match his rhet­or­ic on cli­mate change, and that first and fore­most means keep­ing Alaskan oil in the ground,” said Re­becca Noblin, Alaska dir­ect­or for the Cen­ter for Bio­lo­gic­al Di­versity, which is send­ing its trade­mark po­lar bear cos­tume as part of the rally.

But while en­vir­on­ment­al­ists want the pres­id­ent to clamp down on drilling, Alaska Gov. Bill Walk­er said he’s go­ing to use Obama’s vis­it to push a dif­fer­ent mes­sage.

“We have an ex­cel­lent pipeline in Alaska, ex­cept it is three-quar­ters empty,” Walk­er said on a press call Tues­day. “So I’ll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline.”

In a let­ter to Obama, Alaska Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged the pres­id­ent to use his trip to learn about the di­verse en­ergy de­vel­op­ment in the state, but cau­tioned that “cli­mate change must not be used as an ex­cuse to de­prive Alaskans of our best eco­nom­ic pro­spects.”

It all speaks to the tightrope that Obama has had to walk when it comes to en­ergy pro­duc­tion, es­pe­cially in Arc­tic wa­ters. Green groups don’t want to see any drilling, even un­der con­di­tions that the ad­min­is­tra­tion says would make it as safe as pos­sible. And en­ergy boost­ers in the state say the White House has clamped down too much, es­pe­cially by set­ting aside large swaths of the Arc­tic Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge as wil­der­ness.

Obama ar­rives in Alaska on Monday to de­liv­er re­marks at a State De­part­ment con­fer­ence on the Arc­tic, then will spend two more days trav­el­ing around the state. In a video an­noun­cing the vis­it, Obama said Alaska provided a “wake-up call” on cli­mate change, and the White House says the trip is part of a month-long push on the is­sue after the re­lease of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Clean Power Plan.

The state is feel­ing the brunt of cli­mate change—and Obama could meet with nat­ive Alaskans in the Arc­tic fa­cing the first-hand chal­lenge of sea-level rise.

But Alaska is also ground zero for a massive de­bate over ex­pan­ded drilling, as oil com­pan­ies look to Arc­tic wa­ters for po­ten­tially vast oil fields. The de­bate kicked in­to high gear this sum­mer when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion gave the green light for Shell to start drilling in the Chuk­chi Sea.

The White House has de­fen­ded the per­mit, say­ing the In­teri­or De­part­ment is mak­ing sure that the drilling is be­ing done safely. But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists say any move­ment to­wards oil pro­duc­tion in the Arc­tic is go­ing too far.

“Is­su­ing Shell a per­mit to drill in the Arc­tic is go­ing in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion of things like the Clean Power Plan,” said Kirby Span­gler, an or­gan­izer with Alaska Rising Tide. “It can’t be done safely.”

Arc­tic drilling is rap­idly be­com­ing a flash point for the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment, es­pe­cially with the fight over the Key­stone XL tar sands pipeline near­ing a close. Pro­test­ers in Seattle used kayaks to try to block a Shell ves­sel from leav­ing port, and pro­test­ers have been push­ing on ma­jor Demo­crats to speak out against Arc­tic drilling (and were giv­en a boost when pres­id­en­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton said she was op­posed to it).

For Alaskan greens used to liv­ing on the fringe of the move­ment, they’re hop­ing the trip can bring their is­sues back to the cen­ter.

“Nor­mally in An­chor­age, we’re turn­ing out 100 or 200 people if we’re lucky, so it’s really hard for us to know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” said Span­gler, who is help­ing to put to­geth­er the rally in An­chor­age. “There’s a spot­light on us now, and that gives us a chance to point out the in­justice of what’s be­ing done in the Arc­tic.”

Span­gler said or­gan­izers are even see­ing in­terest from a vari­ety of groups, in­clud­ing faith-based and in­di­gen­ous or­gan­iz­a­tions, for protest­ing the pres­id­ent’s vis­it, a sign of how wide­spread con­cerns are about Arc­tic drilling in the state. The fact that it’s the first pres­id­en­tial vis­it to the Alaskan Arc­tic of­fers a unique—and timely—plat­form.

But Alaskan of­fi­cials are also eager to make their case. Speak­ing to re­port­ers, Walk­er said he was en­cour­aged by what he’s heard from Obama, es­pe­cially after the ap­prov­al of the Shell per­mit, but planned to em­phas­ize the need to open up AN­WR and oth­er off­shore areas.

And drilling back­ers say they’ve got their own deep bench of al­lies. An ad out Thursday from the Arc­tic Slope Re­gion­al Cor­por­a­tion uses the voices of nat­ive Alaskans to pro­mote oil and gas de­vel­op­ment.

“As stew­ards of the land, we have the most at stake in pro­tect­ing an en­vir­on­ment that is fun­da­ment­al to our way of life,” AS­RC pres­id­ent Rex Rock Sr. said in a state­ment. “We also un­der­stand that en­vir­on­ment­al stew­ard­ship does not come at the ex­pense of the re­spons­ible de­vel­op­ment of our nat­ur­al re­sources, which is es­sen­tial to our eco­nom­ic fu­ture.”

If Obama does weigh in on the drilling con­tro­versy, it’s un­likely he’d use the trip to make any ma­jor an­nounce­ment. But greens said there’s still plenty of room for him to turn his crit­ics back in­to al­lies dur­ing the week.

“It would be al­most a 360 for him to say Shell can’t drill any more, but in an ideal world we’d like to hear him say that the best thing we can do to be a lead­er on cli­mate … is to keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place,” said Marissa Knodel, a cli­mate change cam­paign­er with Friends of the Earth. “He has the au­thor­ity to stop leas­ing on fed­er­al lands and wa­ter. A pledge to do that would be ideal.”

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