Battle Over Offshore Drilling In Arctic Dwarfs ANWR Sea ice in the Arctic is retreating, opening the way for some of the largest oil and gas leases in history. But with many species already endangered or threatened, the battle over offshore drilling in Alaska may become more controversial than onshore.
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Battle Over Offshore Drilling In Arctic Dwarfs ANWR

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Battle Over Offshore Drilling In Arctic Dwarfs ANWR

Battle Over Offshore Drilling In Arctic Dwarfs ANWR

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There's also a fight taking place in Alaska, where the Interior Department held hearings this week as part of a plan to put together a five-year energy proposal. The debate centers on the question of drilling for energy on the Outer Continental Shelf. So this is drilling for energy will off the shore of Alaska in Arctic waters. After two days of public testimony, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pronounced Alaskans passionate and divided. Salazar got an earful from those for and against drilling for oil and gas. Elizabeth Arnold has this report.

Unidentified Man: Lot 7012, one bid.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Just over a year ago the oil industry bid a record-breaking $2.6 billion for oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. The sale was staggering.

Unidentified Man: The highest bid was $105,304,580 by Shell Gulf of Mexico.

ARNOLD: Shell had already bought leases even further north and was ready with rigs when then President George Bush lifted the ban on drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf. Shell Alaska General Manager, Pete Slaiby.

Mr. PETER SLAIBY (General manager, Shell Alaska): So we're drill bit ready to move in the Arctic right now. And this is stuff that can happen right now. And, you know, with a few things going our way we will be ready to go in 2010.

ARNOLD: But those few things are now largely in the hands of Secretary Salazar, who came to Alaska this week as part of the process of developing this administration's offshore energy plan. He's called a time-out on new leasing for more public input. And he got plenty yesterday.

Whaling captain and Borough Mayor Edward Itta advised slowing down.

Mayor EDWARD ITTA (North Slope Borough Mayor, Whaling Captain): Mr. Secretary, like all Alaskans, the people of the North Slope depend on the economic engine of oil and gas development. We have supported onshore for well over 30 years now, but Mr. Secretary, offshore is a different matter.

ARNOLD: Alaska governor Sarah Palin advised speeding up.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Delays or major restrictions in accessing our needed resources for environmentally responsible development are not in the nation's or our state's best interest.

ARNOLD: From laborers in hard hats chanting jobs, jobs, jobs, to environmentalists dressed as polar bears and puffins, division and emotion over offshore drilling was apparent. Shell Alaska General Manager Slaiby says it's unjustified.

Mr. SLAIBY: In Alaska we live in the shadow of the Exxon Valdese. You know, I strongly disagree with those who say that we have learned nothing. If you look at the total volume of oil that winds up in the world's oceans, less than one percent.

ARNOLD: A pretty good record, he says, and adds that over the years, more than 100 exploratory wells have already been drilled in U.S. and Canadian arctic waters without an accident.

Mr. SLAIBY: None, none.

ARNOLD: Nothing?

Mr. SLAIBY: None.

ARNOLD: But concern over offshore drilling in arctic waters doesn't just center on spills. The Interior Department is also responsible for endangered species and an increasing number of marine mammals and seabirds in the arctic are in decline. The fear is that the impacts of a warming climate will be compounded by new development.

(Soundbite of icebreaker ramming through ice)

ARNOLD: This is the sound of spring in the northern Bering Sea, a 400-foot icebreaker backing and ramming through the ice pack. Some 30 scientists are onboard this ship, conducting research on just about everything from walrus to ice algae.

In the bowels of this icebreaker, University of Wyoming researcher Jim Loworn studies a seabird with white eye patches: the spectacled eider. One of about 350,000 left in the world's population that breeds here in the arctic. On both hands he counts off other species in danger, steller's eiders, king eiders, and common eiders.

Mr. JIM LOWORN (Researcher, University of Wyoming): You've got red-throated loons, you've got yellow-billed loons, four ice seals, you've got the walrus, you've got bowhead whales. You could not find a more sensitive habitat.

ARNOLD: On the same ship, U.S.G.S. research ecologist Chad Jay is tracking the Pacific Walrus, which is also under consideration for listing, and like the polar bear, could be the next symbol of climate change. Reductions in the extent of ice over the last few years have forced walruses onto small pieces of remnant ice. And in 2007, there was no ice at all near the shelf.

Mr. CHAD JAY (USGS Research ecologist): As a result of that we saw, in Alaska, upwards of 6,000 walruses hauling out along the shore of northwest Alaska, which is their first ever. And it means that a greater number of animals are using a smaller space to forge and to haul out on - probably not a good thing.

ARNOLD: But the very thing that's cause for concern with regard to walrus and other species here in the arctic is what's made drilling in these waters more attractive to industry - less sea ice, and it's posing a major policy decision for the new Department of Interior: weather and how to balance development of what's both a fragile ecosystem and what some believe to be the next best answer to America's thirst for oil.

Salazar says he doesn't expect to make everybody happy.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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