Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Obama's offshore-drilling OK may not be a flip-flop but it's sure Bush-like -- except the Alaska part

Did President Obama do a flip-flop when he opened up vast swaths of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil drilling? It depends on how far back you want to go in the President's record. In the Senate he supported efforts to limit offshore drilling. But as a presidential candidate he came around to accepting at least some offshore drilling as a way to build consensus on the energy issue.

Catharine Richert brings us this analysis for the worthwhile politifact.com website run by the St. Pete Times. Her post is worth a read.

Flip-flop or no, though, it's one of what seem like increasingly more common Obama decisions on the environment that could easily have been made by the George W. Bush administration (but probably not  by the George H.W. Bush team.) Example: On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was going with a Bush-era interpretation of the Clean Air Act that delays a crackdown on regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources such as power plants. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this will allow construction of another 50 coal-fired plants.

Other thoughts in the aftermath of Obama's drilling decision:

+ I couldn't resist retweeting David Roberts of Grist.org:

"Imagine Obama banning offshore drilling in the vague hope that environmental groups might some day support his bill."


Military veterans: Senate must pass clean-energy legislation

Here's something you don't see every day: Battle-hardened military veterans out advocating for an environmental cause.

Oh, I have little doubt that most soldiers and sailors -- like most Americans -- consider themselves friends of Mother Earth. And it's also true, as we wrote recently, that former generals and admirals count energy independence a national security issue. 

 But one doesn't necessarily associate: Military = Green. In fact, waging a war produces a heck of a lot of greenhouse gases.

 So we noted with surprise this week that a group that calls itself votevets.org is launching a $400,000 blitz of radio ads urging key senators to get moving on legislation to safeguard the climate. Here is how the group describes itself:

The leading progressive, pro-military organization of veterans, dedicated to the destruction of terror networks around the world, with force when necessary. It primarily focuses on education and advocacy on issues of importance to the troops and veterans, and holding politicians accountable for their actions on these issues.

The radio spots feature actual vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, giving a pitch in their home state. They will run in conjunction with a bus tour making its way Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, South Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maine.

Here's the script:

ANNOUNCER: There's a new generation of American patriots - young veterans who've fought for our country overseas. Now, they're on a new mission? right here at home. (Home State) veteran (Name).

Local Veteran: Growing up in (Home State), nothing prepares you for the things you see over there.

Can proposed North Slope gas pipeline take on competition?

The proposed North Slope gas pipeline hit another bump yesterday when a Calgary-based global energy consultant counted down multiple obstacles hindering the success of the project, reports Elizabeth Bluemink of the Anchorage Daily News.
One of the prime concerns was competition between the proposed pipeline, which is planned to run from Alaska through Canada to the lower United States, and cheaper gas found at basins in the lower 48 near metropolitan areas. The consultant said tight control of costs associated with the pipeline project would be the only way to stay in the competition.
The project is being pursued by two separate business groups with holdings in on the North Slope. BP and Conoco Phillips have partnered in promoting the Denali Gas Pipeline, while TransCanada and ExxonMobil are developing plans for their own Alaska Pipeline Project. Vice President Tony Palmer of TransCanada hopes the two projects eventually will merge, according to the article.
Gas prices are down right now, which means even some drills in the Lower 48 have temporarily stopped. The corporations involved in the project are optimistic. They expect natural gas prices will rise in 2010, making the North Slope project competitive again.
InvestigateWest reported earlier on the proposed Alaska pipeline here.
-- Emily Linroth

Alberta tar sands energy firm pleads not guilty in birds' deaths

Syncrude, an Alberta oil sands giant, pleaded not guilty Monday in the deaths of approximately 1,600 ducks in one of its tailings ponds in April 2008, reports Sarah O'Donnell in the Edmonton Journal. The migrating ducks landed in a pond near Fort McMurray, were coated in oil residue, and sank to the bottom. Only eight survived, five of which went to Edmonton's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The remaining three were released. The deaths in what's also known as the Alberta tar sands region violate the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Syncrude says it is doing all it can to make avoid a repeat case. Syncrude lawyer Robert White had this to say:

Syncrude is not above the law. However, the law has recognized for a long time that when people do their best to avoid something, that isn't a matter for charges. That is a matter of fix-up... And it is not possible for anybody to do more than Syncrude has done to ensure it never happens again.

The company is still fighting the charges.

North of Fort McMurray, Greenpeace activists have seized a giant dump truck and shovel from Shell's Albian Sands open-pit-mine, reports Richard Warnica in the Edmonton Journal. More than 25 people chained together pickup trucks to block off the dump truck, then climbed to the top and chained themselves down. Spokesman Mike Hudema says the group is prepared to stay until people listen to the message proclaimed on its banner: "Tar Sands: Climate Crime." The protest comes one day before Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's meeting with U.S.

Arctic Ocean set to be mapped and tapped

More than just ice is heating up in the Arctic. U.S. and Canadian ships embarked on a joint exploration to map the sea floor in early August, an effort to determine how far the continental shelf extends from shore and possibly increase each country's claims to resources, reports Elizabeth Bluemink in the Anchorage Daily News. Traditionally, countries hold rights to areas within 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) of their coasts, but those claims can be extended if they can prove the continental shelf goes beyond that point.

As the ice cap has melted over the years, Canada and the U.S. have waited to explore the Arctic sea floor in search of massive amounts of suspected gas and oil reserves. A third of the world's undiscovered gas and billions of barrels worth of oil could be below the surface, according to Bluemink. If the new data gathered on this exploration proves the shelf extends beyond the 200-nautical-mile-limit, the U.S. could lay claims to the underwater land and all creatures and resources associated with it.

Those favoring conservation of the Arctic rather than drilling don't have to hold their breath yet. Because the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, any claims they make to the area will not be recognized internationally.

Researchers are analyzing the data collected on the venture. One find is a massive underwater mountain almost 3,600 feet high that scientists say may help explain the Arctic Ocean's history.

Other researchers are more concerned with the Arctic's future. As the climate warms, many areas in the Arctic are changing rapidly, reports Randolph E. Schmid of the Associated Press. Faster melting ice means changes in growing seasons, which affects many species' ability to find food.

Alaska feels heat with climate legislation

In a state where nearly one-third of the job force works in the oil industry, Alaskans are feeling the heat on climate legislation. Hundreds of people are meeting in rallies and discussions about the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a bill Congress is considering that would levy additional costs on the oil industry, reports Elizabeth Bluemink of the Anchorage Daily News.

Opponents of the bill's cap-and-trade system worry it will hurt the economy by forcing oil jobs offshore, leaving individuals jobless and independent refineries bankrupt.

Supporters say the long-term environmental and economic costs of not implementing the bill would be much higher than the economic ones in the near future. Alaska is already experiencing melting sea ice and permafrost, and warmer temperatures are threatening coastal life from fish to humans, as InvestigateWest reported earlier.

– Emily Linroth

Feds nix oil and gas deal in nation's 3rd largest wildlife refuge

A long-planned deal to allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge is off. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after considering more than 100,000 public comments, scotched the deal at the refuge north of Fairbanks, which is the nation's third-largest wildlife refuge and is about the size of Indiana. Fairbanks-based Doyon Ltd.  isn't unhappy about the decision because the deal involved a land swap, and geologists in recent years said the land the firm already owns within the boundaries of the refuge also has significant potential to produce oil and gas, according to Kyle Hopkins' story in the Anchorage Daily News. Wonder if this decision would have been made this way in the last administration?