What he said: While announcing that he was extending a 30-day moratorium on new offshore drilling for six months, Obama mentioned, almost in passing, that he was pausing plans for new test wells in Alaska. “We will suspend the planned exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska,” he said before moving to discussion of other actions.
What he meant: You wouldn’t have known it from Obama’s presentation but his decision to block drilling in Alaska may be the most politically significant of any of the actions he took on Thursday.
A coalition of major environmental groups has been pressing the administration in newspaper and TV ads to halt the planned drilling by Shell near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The groups were watching Obama closely on this. Some analysts said they had been holding back criticism of the government’s response to the Gulf spill as they awaited word from the White House about whether the drilling planned for this summer would go forward.
“The environmental groups have been saying: if Obama allows Shell to drill, we’re abandoning his presidency. But if he says no to Shell, it’s a turning point,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who closely follows the environmental movement.
Postponing the Alaskan drilling, which can take place only over a short season each summer, buys Obama some time, but likely avoids the expense and legal battle of yanking Shell’s permits altogether. “He pauses the issue until after this election season. That will keep the environmental community at bay,” Brinkley said.
As recently as two weeks ago, Shell wrote to the Interior Department arguing that its Alaska plans should be allowed to proceed because conditions are “much different” than the deepwater drilling that led to the Gulf spill. Shell said it would be drilling not a mile underwater, but 150 feet below the water’s surface and that divers could intervene at that depth.
The company had a muted reaction to Obama’s move scuttling their drilling hopes for the year. “We respect and understand today’s decision in the context of the tragic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we remain confident in our drilling expertise, which is built upon a foundation of redundant safety systems and company global standards,” Shell said Thursday.