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Gulf Oil Spill Raises Concerns in Alaska

Environmental groups call for time out from offshore exploratory drilling

Environmentalists argue the harsh climate in northern Alaska would make cleaning up any potential offshore oil spill extremely difficult.
Environmentalists argue the harsh climate in northern Alaska would make cleaning up any potential offshore oil spill extremely difficult.

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Zulima Palacio

Reacting to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 15 environmental groups have asked the U.S. Interior Department to reconsider an exploratory drilling schedule set to begin in less than 60 days off the northern coast of Alaska.  

"This could be stopped by the stroke of a pen of the Secretary of Interior Salazar or President Obama," says David Dixon of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Environmental concerns

Some native Alaskans and environmental groups have pushed for an offshore drilling delay since the days of the Bush administration.

Environmentalists worry that if a fraction of what happened in the Gulf were to happen in northern Alaska, there would be no way to respond to it leading to devastating environmental damage.

"What we are advocating is that there should be a time out," says Dixon. "We should pause until we know for sure what the potential impacts are to the ecosystems out at sea where they are drilling and until such time as we have a credible means and credible technology to respond to an oil spill."

Dixon says the scheduled drilling is in a very unique and fragile region already affected by climate change.

"Right now the federal government and Shell Oil, the company that will be drilling in the Arctic, say the chances of a blowout in the Arctic are minimum so we shouldn't worry about it," says Dixon. "That's what BP was saying and the Minerals Management were saying in the Gulf of Mexico."

Fifteen environmental groups have asked the Obama administration to delay scheduled offshore drilling in northern Alaska.
Fifteen environmental groups have asked the Obama administration to delay scheduled offshore drilling in northern Alaska.

Risky climate

Dixon says two Alaska explorations are scheduled.

One is in the Chukchi Sea, 80 kilometers from shore, a region known for migratory whales. The other is in the Beaufort Sea, 20 kilometers from shore as well as from the Arctic National wildlife Refuge.

Both are in a harsh icy environment.

"The ice would make it even more difficult to find the oil if it were leaking, let's say, from a pipeline or from a wellhead, because you can't see it, because it is under the ice," says Dixon.

A few days after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama pledged there would be no more offshore drilling until an investigation is completed.  But Dixon says it is not clear whether that includes Alaska.

Safety Record

The oil and energy industries defend their safety record.  

Out of thousands of offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico, they say, only one has had a significant accident and this should not change other plans already scheduled. 

Randall Luthi is the director of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) which represents more than 250 domestic offshore energy industries. During the Bush administration, he was director of the Minerals Management Service which oversees offshore drilling at the Interior Department.

"Those that have been opposed to drilling I think see this as a great opportunity to re-impose moratoriums," says Luthi. "I don't think that's the answer, at least not right now. Let's first find out what happened and what can be done to fix the problem."

Luthi agrees with a temporary restriction on new projects until the investigation in the Gulf is completed, but he sees no need to stop an exploration in Alaska that has already been approved.

"At this point ,from what we know, I don't think there is a need to stop," he says. "I think there is a need for caution. I believe there is a need for everyone to be on their toes and to be extremely careful."

Environmentalists say the answer to the U.S. needs for energy should not be found in more oil drilling but from developing more alternative and renewable sources of energy.

The oil industry says that, while other sources of energy are growing rapidly, the oil and gas industry will continue for the foreseeable future.

For now, both sides know the future of offshore drilling is under scrutiny.

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