Frank Pope, Ocean Correspondent
President Obama’s plan to open huge swaths of the US coastline to oil and natural gas drilling steers a difficult course through the treacherous politics of the Arctic.
Life in the unspoilt white North has been stained black by crude oil spillages before and much damage remains, so the news that the offshore drilling permits sold by President Bush are to be honoured will worry many.
But Mr Obama has not only cancelled any further sales, preventing any more exploration for the next five years, he has at the same time bought himself credit in Congress with which to push forward his Climate Change Bill.
Ice is vital to Arctic ecosystems, and both the temperature and the chemistry of the ocean are changing faster than anywhere else on the planet. The importance of slowing global carbon dioxide emissions outweighs the damage from a few Arctic oil wells.
Oil companies have been touting the reduced environmental impact of their activities in the high North. They boast new technology that has shrunk their physical footprint to almost half what it once was, while strict regulations are in place to prevent and control disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, which dumped nine million gallons of crude spill on to Alaskan shores. (It is still there in surprising quantities.)
But much damage is still being done. Even without accidents, oil rigs spill almost three million litres of oil into the ocean every year through routine operations. Companies say that rigs can operate with zero discharges but admit that it is too expensive to do so in the remote Arctic.
Chemicals to disperse oil spills are supposed to be kept close at hand but the Arctic weather can destroy the best-laid plans. In December 2004 a Malaysian ship ran aground off Alaska, killing six of its crew and spilling more than 270,000 gallons of heavy fuel. Despite the new rules, bad conditions meant that the dispersant took three weeks to arrive.
Environmental impact assessments warn of up to a 50-50 chance of large spills in the Chukchi Sea.
Obama has pulled back from further deals in the Arctic because of this uncertainty about the ability to cope with accidents if – or when – they occur. He is also acknowledging the lack of scientific knowledge about the area.
The continental shelf of the eastern seaboard suffers from the same lack of a scientific baseline but the drilling plans there are unlikely to generate the same depth of public sentiment. Most rigs will be located more than 25 miles offshore. They will be invisible from the shore – unless something goes wrong. A slick can cover that distance in short order.
Oil companies, conservationists and indigenous Alaskans might all have wanted more from Mr Obama, but none is furious at his offshore drilling plans. It bodes well for his long-awaited Ocean Policy, a plan to integrate the many demands being made on US waters. Comment: Obama steers course through tricky waters
Such compromises won’t be seen elsewhere in the high North, however. Strategically, Russia has to exploit its Arctic oil and gas reserves, and is far less inclined to listen to environmental concerns when it does so.