Shell’s delay ignites calls for deep freeze on Arctic drilling

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists celebrating Shell’s decision to put its 2014 Arctic drilling plans on ice said Thursday they hope the company and Obama administration now will abandon all oil exploration in the remote region.

Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said the oil company was taking a temporary timeout following a federal appeals court ruling against the underlying government auction of its Chukchi Sea drilling leases.

Oceana vice president Jacqueline Savitz said the move shows “Shell is finally recognizing what we’ve been saying all along: that offshore drilling in the Arctic is risky, costly and simply not a good bet from a business perspective.”

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Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice, said he hopes this is just the first step.

“Shell’s decision today means America’s Arctic waters are safe from big oil for another summer,” Grafe said. “The Department of the Interior now needs to take a hard look at whether the Chukchi Sea should be open for oil drilling at all, beginning with a full and public environmental impact statement process that addresses the (court) decision and does not minimize the risks of oil drilling in this vibrant but vulnerable sea.”

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, insisted the Interior Department “should reevaluate its Arctic drilling efforts” in light of the court ruling and Shell’s decision.

Political impact

For the Obama administration and Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, Shell’s decision effectively removes some heat from the politically sensitive issue of Arctic drilling during a midterm election year. A decision against Shell could put some vulnerable Democrats — particularly Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — in a tough spot.

Alaska lawmakers urged the Interior Department to hold firm and work quickly to resolve the legal issues.

Begich said he would be pressing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to make the issue a priority.

“It is simply unacceptable that judicial overreach is getting in the way of letting Alaskans develop our natural resources,” he said.

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For the first-term senator, Arctic drilling is a fraught political issue, one that could weigh heavily on his prospects for reelection in November. Begich was bullish about the long-term prospects for oil exploration in the region, stressing that Shell’s pause is just a “temporary setback.”

“I believe the prospects for Arctic development remain strong,” Begich said. “I’m confident that this project will move forward.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Shell’s decision made sense financially, following the court ruling.

“We can’t expect Shell to continue to spend billions of dollars on this project when the rules keep changing,” she said.

Murkowski called on the Obama administration to “work quickly” to address the court ruling. Beyond that, she said it was important for President Barack Obama “to demonstrate his unequivocal support for development in the Arctic.”

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