Obama on defense as he heads to Alaska

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is traveling to Alaska to highlight the danger of climate change, but even before he left the nation’s capital Monday, the commander in chief was forced to defend his approach to the issue and his administration’s decision to allow Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

“Our economy still has to rely on oil and gas,” Obama said in his weekly radio address, insisting that it is important to make sure the extraction of those fossil fuels “is done at the highest standards possible.”

Obama is set to spend three days in the Last Frontier state, meeting with Alaska natives and fishermen, addressing an international summit on “global leadership in the Arctic,” hiking to Exit glacier and touring Kenai Fjords National Park by boat.

But environmentalists say there is a clash between Shell’s exploratory oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea and Obama’s visit to survey shrinking glaciers and speak with coastal residents worried about rising seas.

While some praised Obama for highlighting the threat of climate change and only gently chided him for authorizing Shell’s ongoing drilling, others took a harder line.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said “approving drilling in the Arctic while attempting to build a climate legacy is mixing oil and water.”

“The president has a number of significant accomplishments in Alaska and the Arctic, including recommending permanent protection for the Arctic Refuge and protecting Bristol Bay and the Izembek Refuge,” Brune said. “However he is undercutting those accomplishments by letting dangerous drilling move forward in the Chukchi Sea.”

Separately, CREDO last week launched a website, video and petition drive to highlight what the group described as “climate hypocrisy.”

Related story: Alaska natives tout Arctic energy development before president’s visit

“There is no clearer symbol of the self-defeating hypocrisy at the heart of President Obama’s energy policy than going to Alaska to talk about the urgency of climate change after allowing Shell to drill in the Arctic,” said CREDO climate campaigns director Elijah Zarlin.

Shell launched its exploratory oil drilling on July 30, targeting a potential oil and gas reservoir thousands of feet below the Chukchi Sea. The work is unfolding on seven-year-old leases sold by the Interior Department under former President George W. Bush — a detail Obama was careful to highlight in his radio address.

“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters. Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office,” Obama said. “I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling.  I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well.”

But Obama insisted that federal regulators are making sure Shell is meeting “high standards in how they conduct their operations.”

“It’s a testament to how rigorous we’ve applied those standards that Shell has delayed and limited its exploration off Alaska while trying to meet them,” Obama said, in an apparent reference to wildlife rules that thwarted the company’s plans to drill two neighboring Chukchi Sea wells at the same time.

Read more: Obama administration delivers big blow to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans

The Interior Department also initially limited Shell’s drilling to the first 3,000 feet, barring the company from penetrating potential oil- and gas-bearing zones deeper down until critical emergency equipment was on site.

While Obama is battered on the left for Arctic drilling, he faces criticism from oil and gas enthusiasts for foreclosing domestic development in some parts of Alaska.

Leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents some 12,000 Alaska natives and holds the rights to about 5 million North Slope acres, published an open letter to Obama stressing that oil and gas development and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

“History has shown us that the responsible energy development, which is the lifeblood of our economy, can exist in tandem with — and significantly enhance — our traditional way of life,” wrote the ASRC’s president, Rex Rock Sr., and chairman of its board of directors, Crawford Patkotak. “The industry has operated safely in our backyard for over four decades producing more than 15 billion barrels of oil from the North Slope in that time. With those barrels come jobs, security and opportunity.”

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