Obama heads north to Alaska, where drilling decision looms large

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 29, 2015 6:03 AM

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday defended his decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean under what he said were rigorous standards, fending off criticism by environmental groups.

His message comes on the eve of a three-day tour of Alaska aimed at drawing attention to powerful images of melting glaciers and eroding coastlines as a "wakeup call" to Americans in the Lower 48 states about the urgent need to address climate change.

The trip is part of a broad campaign to seal an international deal later this year to curb carbon emissions, something the White House hopes will cap Obama's legacy on climate during his time in office.

It also highlights inherent contradictions in his climate and energy policies. While Obama pushes the world to wean itself from fossil fuels, his administration gave Shell the green light earlier this month to drill in the oil-rich Chukchi Sea.

Environmental groups argue that Arctic drilling will expose whales, walruses and polar bears to risks of spills, and will expand the kind of energy production blamed for climate change.

"I share people's concerns about offshore drilling," Obama said in his weekly address.

"I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well," he said, referring to the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig that killed 11 people and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the ocean.

Obama pointed out that Shell bought its exploration leases before he took office - when George W. Bush was president - and said his administration set "the highest standards possible" for the drilling.

The U.S. economy needs oil and gas until it makes the "transition" to renewable energy and should count on domestic fossil fuels rather than imports, he said.

In Alaska, Obama will address an international arctic conference in Anchorage on Monday and meet with Alaska Governor Bill Walker and some native leaders.

On Tuesday, he will hike on a receding glacier near the town of Seward. The next day, he will travel to the salmon-fishing town of Dillingham on Bristol Bay before flying into the small town of Kotzebue north of the Arctic Circle - the first time a sitting U.S. president will travel that far north.

Obama will announce new policies to help communities adapt to climate change and deploy renewable energy, said Brian Deese, Obama's top adviser on climate issues, during a conference call with reporters.

The climate focus of Obama's tour has rattled some people in Alaska, which depends on oil and gas for 90 percent of its revenues and a third of its jobs.

"People are worried that folks with apparently good intentions will shut down our area," said Richard Savik Glenn, executive vice president at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp, a resource company owned by 12,000 Inupiat native peoples.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Leslie Adler)