President Obama didn't make any friends Monday when his administration gave a green light to drill in Arctic waters.
Environmentalists are up in arms, asking in no uncertain terms how a president who preaches the need to act on climate change and witnessed the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico could decide that more offshore drilling is a good thing.
And while the oil and gas industry and its champions are pleased that Shell may be able to drill in icy waters off Alaska's coast as early as this summer, they still fear that Obama will stand in the way of efforts to tap vast Arctic oil deposits.
"I'm not going to believe it until it actually happens," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, emphasizing that Shell must still clear a slate of hurdles, including federal sign-off on additional permits, before drilling. "We're not out of the woods yet."
"It's a good first step. But you have to realize it's just a first step. They still have a lot more to do to actually make it effective," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah.
More broadly, Monday's announcement does little to ease tensions over the White House's energy agenda or convince Republicans to back down from using their platform in Congress to fight Obama's environmental actions, including tough regulations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.
Rep. Don Young of Alaska added that the green light given to Shell "will never make up for the vast swaths of onshore and offshore areas the administration has already taken off the table."
Overall, Obama has taken historic action to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists say are driving global warming. In addition to setting out pollution curbs for power plants, the administration has rolled out an increase in fuel-economy standards and looked to squeeze out emissions cuts across a wide array of federal agencies.
But green groups have become increasingly irate over Obama's recent policy agenda, which they see as evidence of an administration failing to practice what it preaches.
Environmentalists have railed against Obama's efforts to negotiate and finalize a set of sweeping international trade deals that green groups say could undermine key environmental safeguards and worsen climate change. Now, the White House is poised to allow more oil drilling.
On Tuesday, Bill McKibben, the founder of grassroots environmental group 350.org and a pioneer of the climate movement, penned a scathing op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the Arctic-drilling news.
"The Obama administration's decision to give Shell Oil the go-ahead to drill in the Arctic shows why we may never win the fight against climate change," McKibben wrote. "Even in this most extreme circumstance, no one seems able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry. No one ever says no."
On top of that, Obama still hasn't made a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become the symbol of the national debate over climate change and American energy security. The administration's silence on the pipeline has both sides on edge.
The White House points to Shell's advance into the Arctic as evidence of the president's all-of-the above energy strategy, and emphasizes that new federal safeguards should ensure that drilling is done safely and responsibly.
"The president is committed to ensuring that we are doing as much as we can to protect our energy security, and that means looking for opportunities to safely develop sources of energy on American soil," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday.
In February, the Interior Department unveiled a slate of safety standards designed to prevent and contain oil spills in remote Arctic waters, including requirements that companies have quick access to equipment to contain a potential blowout and have a rig available to drill a "relief well"—a second well that could halt the flow of oil from a blowout.
But all that has done little to calm fears from environmentalists that Arctic drilling will be a disaster.
Drilling in Arctic waters is no easy task. Freezing temperatures, choppy waters, and remote locations increase the odds of an accident. And green groups are quick to point out that the Interior Department itself has acknowledged the risk of a major oil spill if existing leases are developed in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.
As a result, green groups are infuriated. Environmentalists don't trust that safeguards put in place to protect the environment will suffice, and they view the decision as a step in entirely the wrong direction as they work to pressure the administration to continue tackling climate change before Obama's term in office ends.
"We think the administration is dead wrong on this," said Ben Schreiber, Friends of the Earth's climate and energy program director.
"Arctic drilling is just a terrible, terrible idea," said Elijah Zarlin, a senior campaigner for CREDO Action. "This is a president that has already presided over the greatest oil spill in history, and now it seems like he's trying to break his own record. It certainly is becoming harder and harder to believe that the president is going to live up to his commitments."
And Obama's Arctic drilling go-ahead won't earn the administration any more breathing room in Congress as long as Republicans run the show. The president's critics are concerned that he'll restrict Arctic offshore development in other ways. For instance, Interior's plans call for selling Arctic leases next year and in 2017, but an aide to Murkowski expressed skepticism about whether those auctions will proceed.
"I'm not going to take my foot off the pedal," Murkowski said. "I think it's important for people to understand what resources we have, and yet what oftentimes we're held back from accessing."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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