Drilling and politics

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

We all know what they say about what’s found in the middle of the road. Roadkill.

So President Barack Obama’s decision to cautiously expand oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico while leaving most offshore areas off limits is getting the liveliest attention from those who don’t like it.

Environmental groups and some Alaska Native villages are dead set against Arctic drilling, arguing that there isn’t enough knowledge or spill response capability to deal with an Arctic spill.

Obama’s Republican foes say this is a toe in the water at a time when the United States needs to dive in. They argue the policy stifles American energy production, idles workers and hobbles the economy.

The rub for Obama? Both choruses of critics have a point.

The truth is we don’t know enough about the Arctic, and we won’t know for sure about spill response unless we have one. That’s a lesson that’s hard-earned in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

There’s risk in Arctic drilling. The Interior Department calls it a “frontier area.” It’s not a complete unknown. Oil companies have done offshore Arctic drilling before. But plans by Shell and others with future lease sales will take exploration and drilling farther afield in Alaska than before. Exploration needs to be steady, methodical and done with a 24/7, unblinking watch. No shortcuts.

But exploration should go on.

GOP critics can certainly argue that full-speed ahead offshore exploration will create jobs, increase domestic production and help the economy. The nation sorely needs an economic boost. But is “drill away” the answer?

No. Smart exploration and production is the answer. Critics from all sides might remember that Obama’s policy before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 was for more lease sales in Alaska, the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf, with more areas open and some — like the Aleutian Basin near Bristol Bay — declared off limits.

What the administration is trying to do now is juggle realities — political, economic, environmental. We need oil and gas production. We’re likely to get it in the Arctic and the Gulf.

At the same time, revamping of federal oversight and industry practices to ensure the highest standard of operations in the world takes time.

The administration’s policy is to go forward in the Arctic, but not to rush. If Shell gets to drill in 2012, that’s when contingency plans and promises will begin their field tests, and that’s where it counts.

The Obama policy will satisfy neither boomers nor never-drillers. And that’s a recommendation.

Lease sale decision takes the right course and should proceed.

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