Top White House Energy Official: Arctic Drilling Is Coming

Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (National Journal)

Heather Zichal, the top White House aide on energy issues, predicted on Wednesday that the long-awaited exploratory drilling project in the Arctic Ocean that Royal Dutch Shell will head is on its way -- the closest the Obama administration has come to announcing its approval.

Responding to questions at a National Journal forum about whether the administration is committed to an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, Zichal said that among other things, "This summer, we're announcing "¦ some new developments in the Arctic."

Many observers see the project as inevitable. Shell has spent billions of dollars and has waited five years to begin exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic, and has said that it hopes to begin drilling in July. That would give the company enough time to explore in the short window before October, the start of the Arctic winter with its icy conditions.

Shell has nearly all of the approvals it needs to move forward, having seen its oil-spill response plan and other environmental reviews and authorizations approved in the last several months. The company essentially needs only a final OK from the Interior Department before it moves forward, something that Zichal indicated would be forthcoming.

"It looks like they are most likely on track for approval," said Zichal, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

The administration's readiness to take up the project and concerns over the icy, harsh environment and virtual lack of infrastructure in the region have environmental groups up in arms over the pending approval. But Zichal said that the White House is being cautious in its expected endorsement.

"The Department of Interior has applied a lot of the lessons learned from the BP oil spill," she said, adding that the drilling "will be the most closely monitored "¦ project in the world" and will allow the administration to gather new scientific data about the Arctic region.

Zichal spoke about a variety of other energy initiatives and goals at the forum. She noted that the administration endorses a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

"It's unfortunate that we can't focus on things that have broad bipartisan support," Zichal said, speaking about the energy-efficiency measure as well as the expiring production tax credit for the wind-energy industry.

Still, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who spoke later at National Journal's panel, said that the efficiency bill -- which has a bipartisan companion in the House -- is certainly worth the debate on the floor.

McCarthy also said he supports extending the production tax credit for wind power, which expires at year's end. "I think we should do it," he replied when asked whether Congress should extend it. But he added a caveat: Even though he supports it, "That doesn't mean anybody listens to me."

Still, the House — led by McCarthy — begins debate Wednesday on a package of energy bills that expand oil and gas development, curtail environmental rules, and seek to lower gasoline prices. It's expected to pass the House by the end of the week but is not likely to gain traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The White House issued a veto threat on Tuesday, to boot.