The massive oil spill off the Gulf coast has complicated President Barack Obama's plan to expand offshore oil drilling in areas long out of bounds to energy development, forcing administration officials to promise a more critical look at the potential environmental risks.
But Shell Oil's Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said company officials don't think the Gulf spill will delay Shell's getting permits needed to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast this summer.
"We don't have any reason to believe those outstanding permits will be impacted by recent events in the Gulf of Mexico," Smith said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the past month issued to Shell key air-quality permits needed for its drilling.
The Gulf disaster occurred when a BP-leased oil platform exploded and sank last week; 11 crew members remained missing Thursday and oil from the spill moved to within a dozen miles of the coast.
Pam Miller, an arctic specialist with the Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center, said the spill should prompt a timeout. The accident, she said, reinforces the need to study the impact of Arctic development on wildlife and the complications of mopping up oil spills in icy waters.
"We think there should be a timeout from leasing and drilling," Miller said. "We should take a cautious, science-based approach to development."
White House officials acknowledged that the explosion and spill at a BP oil platform 40 miles off shore could affect future decisions on offshore drilling.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said depending on the cause, the spill could affect what areas would be viewed as acceptable for drilling -- or even change the president's "viewpoint" on new offshore oil drilling.
"We need to learn from the incident," said White House energy adviser Carol Browner. She said those lessons "will be folded in" as the Interior Department goes through a lengthy process of issuing offshore oil development leases.
But Gibbs and Browner said -- at least for now -- Obama remains committed to plans to expand offshore drilling to new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.