A handful of Democratic senators this week are calling on President Obama's Interior Department to refrain from issuing new offshore oil leases in Alaska's Arctic, according to the News Tribune. The lawmakers from the Lower 48 cite the president's failure to make an adequate case for drilling safely and spill cleanup in the treacherous Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which make up U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska.
The request comes after an eight-year push by Royal Dutch Shell to tap what could be billions of barrels of oil under the Arctic Ocean. Shell has already started preliminary drilling in the Chukchi and may soon begin similar drilling in the Beaufort.
Alaska Dispatch ran a four-part series this week exploring offshore Arctic drilling and whether it might have been safer to tap the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska, which is also believed to hold billions of barrels of oil, rather than drill dozens of miles offshore. There is great concern that if a spill happens in the Arctic Ocean -- especially during icy conditions -- it will be difficult to respond and clean up the mess. That's in part because there is no deepwater port in Alaska's Arctic, let alone roads, to stage and respond to such an incident.
Shell officials have said they've invested heavily to prevent any spills from happening in the first place and are ready to respond in the unlikely event one does occur. Meantime, other oil companies that already hold leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort are watching Shell, prepared to follow suit if the Netherlands-based company is successful with its offshore plans.
In their letter this week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the senators write: "Challenges with infrastructure and spill response are unprecedented in the Arctic's remote, underdeveloped region." The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Barbra Boxer of California, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The senators urge the Interior Department to remove the Arctic Ocean from its 2012-17 leasing program, adding that an adequate oil-spill response plan for the area is needed before more leases are auctioned off to oil companies. According to the News Tribune, an Interior Department spokesman had "no response to the letter."
For more about offshore drilling in Alaska, read Alaska Dispatch's series "Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR."