Our view: Offshore oil decision

Obama plays it down middle; Alaska calls make sense

April 1, 2010 

Shell can proceed in the Chukchi Sea; Bristol Bay and environs are still off-limits; further leasing in Arctic waters will go on hold for further study. It's not "drill, baby, drill" but it's not a lockup either.

President Obama's decision on oil and gas exploration on the nation's outer continental shelf strikes a balance between environmental protection and increased U.S. oil and gas production, all in the context of gradually diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels.

"I felt the decision, as far as Alaska's position is concerned, was reasonable," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who has sought accelerated exploration and drilling to tap more of Alaska's energy, both offshore and on.

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich struck a similar note. He said that, at least at first glance, the president aimed for balance and achieved it.

The United States needs to produce more of its own oil and gas, and Alaska should be a big part of that production. That's why the green light for Shell -- and the news that its air quality permit has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency -- is welcome. Shell still must wait for the outcome of court challenges to its exploration plans.

Oil exploration and production in arctic seas come with risk. Critics of Obama's decision say that letting Shell proceed is an invitation to disaster and disregard for climate change, which is more obvious in the Arctic than in much of the rest of the world. Environmentalists and some North Slope villagers worry about the effects on subsistence and the difficulty of cleaning up oil spills in icy waters. All of these are valid concerns.

But the president has to balance that risk with the potential for almost 20 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of gas under the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. And the hard fact is that no spill response will ever be adequate, in waters cold or warm. Prevention is paramount; everything else is damage control at best. Living with the risks of spills -- and cutting those risks as far as we can -- come with producing the energy we need.

It's smart to see what Shell will produce, how they will do it and what they will learn before opening other lease sales in the Arctic. That fits the definition of responsible development.

So does the Bristol Bay decision. Alaskans who have been here for a while will hear an echo of the late Gov. Jay Hammond in the canceled lease sales for the North Aleutian Basin, where millions of salmon bound for Bristol Bay each year spend much of their lives. Hammond had a simple maxim -- better to err on the side of conservation than on the side of development.

That maxim doesn't apply to every choice, but it does for Bristol Bay, one of the richest fisheries on the planet, and one that should be with us for generations, long after any oil and gas are tapped out. National treasure? No doubt.

Alaskans have prospered with oil and gas development. Alaskans also have suffered by it with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the worst in North American history. We know there are risks. We know there are trade-offs. We know that's life in the real world.

The president's drilling plans look like a real-world decision.

BOTTOM LINE: Outer continental shelf drilling plan is responsible and realistic.

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