Balance is in the eye of the beholder and ultimately Congress

Posted: Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Balance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When I behold President Obama's recent offshore oil announcement, as a former resident of Dillingham and fishing representative, I am ecstatic.

I can remember back in 1980 talking to village elders who were worried about how offshore oil and gas could disrupt their way of life. But their voices were not heard until the Exxon Valdez tragedy. Imagining what such a devastating spill could have done to Bristol Bay, the North Aleutian Basin was put off limits to offshore oil and gas. Then, as the images of the Exxon Valdez faded, President Bush once again opened the North Aleutian area for oil and gas leasing.

Hopefully with President Obama's latest action, Bristol Bay will remain permanently off limits as it is home to the world's largest sockeye run and nursery to many of the lucrative Bering Sea fisheries. Given that this region provides so much of the nation's seafood, the decision is as much pragmatic as it is conservation oriented.

As an Alaskan, I find balance in the President's decision to keep Cook Inlet open and to put new leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort on hold pending further study of environmental and oil spill risks. However, as a professional knowledgeable about energy and climate change policy I have grave reservations about President Obama's attempt to strike a balance between "drill baby drill" and "clean and green." If this announcement is enough to woo Republican support to pass a substantive energy and climate bill this session, then he may indeed find that balanced compromise. If not, he risks setting the country up for double jeopardy, i.e. more fossil fuels production combined with no action to curb greenhouse gases, which would only compound the impacts of climate change and delays the transition to a clean energy economy.

The While House denies that the President's announcement on offshore drilling is part of ongoing Congressional negotiations. But those close to the action in Washington, D.C., including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., note that Obama is "sending as clear a signal as possible that he is willing to compromise in a way that will bring forth a great energy and climate bill, and he wants Republicans to be a part of it."

After witnessing the painful process on health care where Republican amendments and ideas incorporated failed to woo a single Republican vote, I fear the President has just set himself up to continue the failed energy policies of the past, while allowing the drive to invigorate clean energy jobs to languish. Even though today's headline is offshore oil, the real energy battle will be what to do with coal, the dirtiest of our fossil fuels. The coal-based utilities will wage a fierce battle against any proposal to put a price on carbon, an essential task for harnessing the power of the marketplace. Factoring in the likelihood that a coal war is brewing, the prospects for finding 60 votes is daunting. In other words, the heavy lift of a bipartisan climate and energy bill just got heavier.

The only way out of double jeopardy is to have political statesmanship be the order of the day. As senators from the only Arctic state on the front line of climate change, I implore Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich to rise to this leadership challenge. It is up to them to deliver the balance in the President's bold move on offshore drilling. It is up to them to provide the secure and healthy future that future generations of Alaskans rightfully deserve.

• Kate Troll is a longtime Alaska resident who has more than 18 years of experience in fisheries and coastal management policy and has been working the past four years on climate and energy matters. Her column will appear twice a month.

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