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Shell's 'hearts and minds' strategy for Alaska Arctic offshore drilling

Eric Christopher Adams

Royal Dutch Shell believes there's enough oil underneath Alaska's Arctic waters to fuel 25 million cars for 35 years, according to a proposal expected to be pitched to the federal government this week.

The numbers are significant. But what if the Obama administration isn't interested in fueling millions of cars for another quarter-century? For whom do the Feds regulate?

The New York Times reports that Shell is renewing its attempt to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic -- as many as 10 wells will be proposed -- after five years pitching the federal regulators, Alaska Natives and environmentalists.

Perhaps the company's biggest nemesis in the Arctic is the Center for Biological Diversity, which has successfully sued the Bush and Obama administrations to protect Alaska Arctic animals under the Endangered Species Act.

"If the Obama administration approves drilling in the Arctic, it will demonstrate that they have learned nothing from the Gulf spill," Center for Biological Diversity lawyer Brendan Cummings told The Times.

The political science at the heart of offshore drilling (not to mention in the evolving cultural war over climate change) has changed radically: first in the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations, and even more recently in the transition from a Democratic-controlled Congress to a Republican-led House.

And then there's always the hundreds of millions of barrels of oil that ended up in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, when the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig exploded.

Today's environmentalists use the Endangered Species Act, along with dozens of other congressionally-passed environmental laws, to "combat growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation," in accordance with a policy statement published with the act by Congress and signed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973.

A Times reporter headed out to Savoonga, a Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island, last week to shadow Shell Alaska's Pete Slaiby, who was trying again with Alaska Natives underwhelmed by previous campaigns to win local approval of Arctic offshore drilling.

One hunter there, according to The Times, "waved a copy of the movie 'An Inconvenient Truth'" at Slaiby. That movie, about how global warming was causing catastrophic climate shifts on Earth, won former Vice President Al Gore a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (along with a U.N. panel of climate change scientists).

Said Shell's top Alaska executive to the Times: "We won't be successful here if we deprive people of their subsistence … If the oil companies are doing well and the people living around them are not, it's a recipe for disaster."

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com