Alaska's pro-offshore drilling congressional delegation is optimistic that federal regulators will give Shell Oil a green light to explore in waters off the North Slope this summer.
Their testimonial to opening a controversial new oil frontier in Arctic waters came as Shell filed new assurances with federal regulators that the company has adopted new safeguards in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill.
The three-member congressional delegation had a rare convergence in Anchorage on Monday at a downtown Chamber of Commerce lunch.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young took turns during the lunch -- which drew a crowd numbering in the hundreds -- to share their opinions about national and Alaska energy issues.
The lawmakers spent a lot of their time talking about matters that had nothing to do with Shell's controversial drilling plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas or the massive oil leak from a Gulf of Mexico oil well. For example, they criticized the federal Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and the Fish & Wildlife Service's plan to study the possibility of designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain as wilderness, making it off-limits to oil companies.
But they did speak at some length about Shell's project, which they all favor. They emphasized that offshore and onshore drilling in the United States is necessary, despite the anxiety created by the big Gulf oil leak.
"To consume, we must produce from our own land," said Begich, calling it a moral obligation.
Young said the media is making the Gulf leak out to be a disaster but he doesn't believe that it has reached that level.
"It's a tragedy," he said of the spill. He has proposed legislation to aid Gulf fishermen impacted by the spill. He said he doesn't believe the congressional hearings on the spill are producing much useful information so far.
"Congress is probably the worst place you can go to get facts," he said, eliciting ripples of laughter from the room.
Young and Murkowski, both Republicans, and a staffer for Begich, a Democrat, said on Monday that they expect the Obama administration's demand for more information from Shell about its drilling safeguards will not actually halt the Dutch company's drilling this summer.
Shell executives sent a five-page letter to the head of the federal Minerals Management Service on Friday describing the company's drilling practices, how it plans to prevent an oil spill, and how it would act if a spill does occur in federal waters off Alaska's northern coast.
The letter listed new safeguards the company plans in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill. The letter said some of the nine additional measures haven't been fully vetted yet. One thing the company said it will do: Test its major underwater well-control equipment, called a blowout preventer, every seven days instead of every 14.
Environmentalists who are trying to block Shell's Arctic drilling said Monday they still don't think the company's spill response plan can handle a major spill.
The oil spill plan "does not show that they can manage a response on the scale of BP's ongoing Gulf disaster let alone a smaller spill," according to a statement from the Pew Environment Group, which noted on Monday that so far the Gulf spill has required 13,000 people and 520 vessels.
In its letter to the MMS, Shell called its oil spill plan "unprecedented." Using its oil-spill response ship, barges and other personnel and equipment, the company says it can begin cleaning up an oil spill an hour after it happens.
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By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK