Oregon senator hopes Obama’s potential Arctic visit could spur White House to block drilling

WASHINGTON — The new U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council and a potential visit by President Barack Obama to the area should prompt the administration to block oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters, Sen. Jeff Merkley said Thursday.

Merkley, D-Oregon, introduced legislation that would do just that on Thursday, as an Interior Department agency weighs whether to issue final drilling permits to Shell Oil Co. for planned wells in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska.

While Merkley’s opportunities to advance the measure in the Republican-controlled Senate are limited, he hopes the United States’ engagement on Arctic issues will provide some momentum.

“The president himself has talked about going to the Arctic later this summer,” Merkley noted. “So I hope the president will be able to use this as a moment to ponder the type of destruction that I’m speaking of and come to support that the Arctic should absolutely be off limits.”

The United States just took over a two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an international group representing eight nations that have territory north of the Arctic Circle.

And a ministerial event on the Arctic in Alaska next month is expected to draw high-level officials from the United States and around the world, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama possibly visiting the state.

The White House has not announced a trip, but Ret. Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp referenced the upcoming summit on the sidelines of an Arctic conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. And in February, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Obama is expected to visit Alaska in August.

If so, the visit could take place right as Shell is burrowing drill bits into the bottom of the Chukchi Sea.

The company hopes to bore at least one well in its Burger prospect, about 70 miles off the Alaska coast, before worsening weather conditions and a regulatory decree force it to halt the activity Sept. 24.

Shell’s work is far from guaranteed. The company is still seeking required drilling permits and repairs for a contracted icebreaker that is supposed to help safeguard operations this summer.

That icebreaker, the Arctia Offshore-owned MSV Fennica, is being sent to Portland, Ore. for repairs that could keep it away from the Chukchi Sea until early August.

And it is unclear how much work — if nay — the Interior Department will allow Shell to conduct without the Fennica nearby.

Wildlife protections also are curtailing some of Shell’s planned operations. A 15-mile buffer zone required between simultaneous drilling activities means Shell can’t bore both of its planned wells at the same time, since they are just 8.9 miles apart.

And those same rules — designed to protect marine mammals — could block Shell from using its icebreakers in nearby Hanna Shoal during July and August, since the area is a prime feeding ground for walruses.

Even with those restrictions, Merkley said, Arctic drilling is simply too risky.

“The Arctic is too remote, too fragile and too harsh to safely drill or conduct a clean-up operation, should a disaster occur,” Merkley said. “Drilling in those waters would really be a crime against the environment.”

His new legislation, which has five original cosponsors, including Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. and Ed Markey, D-Mass., would prohibit new oil and gas leases in U.S. Arctic waters. It also would block the secretary of the Interior from renewing existing leases or authorizing any exploration, development or production in the territory.

The area is indeed remote — about 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station — and shrouded in darkness part of the year.

Because infrastructure is sparse, Shell has amassed an armada of vessels for its Arctic drilling campaign, including oil spill response boats that carry skimmers, boom and other equipment to combat a spill. A specialized containment dome also would be stationed in Kotzebue Sound, about 10 days away, to be used atop a damaged oil well.

The company also points to precautions, including the use of a dual shear rams in an emergency device known as a blowout preventer to double the chances of slicing through drilling pipe and debris so an open well hole can be sealed off.

Arctic drilling foes say those steps are not sufficient to ensure that spilled oil does not hurt the environment, including the walruses, whales and other marine life that live in the Chukchi Sea or migrate through it.

“The kind of destruction that would occur” from a spill in the Arctic is far worse than similar events in the Gulf of Mexico, Merkley said, because Arctic organisms have not adapted to a natural leakage of oil from the ocean bottom and because spilled crude would break down much more slowly in the cold water.