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In Case You Missed It: Sen. Begich Delivers Keynote Address on the Future of the Arctic

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich today was a keynote speaker at the Arctic Symposium: “Our Changing Oceans.”

The event took place at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, DC.

OFFSHORE DRILLING: Begich urges exploration of Arctic seas (01/21/2011)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich today said oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off his state's coastline should proceed -- along with critical investments in scientific research, infrastructure and oil spill response capabilities.

The first-term senator also announced he will reintroduce a package of bills next week to fund environmental studies and research into oil spill response in broken ice conditions and to invest in infrastructure such as ice breakers and operating bases.

"I know there are some here who would prefer there be a moratorium on all Arctic development," Begich said during a speech at the National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment. "I want you to know I disagree with that."

Begich praised the president's Oil Spill Commission finding last week that the need for additional research in the Arctic does not justify a "de facto moratorium" on development.

"This research needs to take place on a parallel track with exploration with, as the commission recommended, containment and response plans that are adequate for each stage of exploration," Begich said.

Begich also said he would reintroduce his Inuvikput package to address adaptation needs of local communities and fund key infrastructure needs such as icebreakers, forward operating bases for oil spill response, search and rescue capabilities, navigation aids and vessel tracking capabilities.

The bills -- which would be funded through an increase in the per-barrel Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund fee by 3 cents per barrel for domestic produced oil and 7 cents for imported oil -- would also fund baseline studies on Arctic marine ecosystems and environmental conditions as well as specific research into oil spill response in broken ice conditions.

Provisions to authorize funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oil spill research that were included in an earlier Begich bill will not be kept in the measures he will introduce next week. But they were included in Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) "SHORE Act" last year, S. 3597. Rockefeller's bill has yet to be reintroduced.

More research before drilling?

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, this morning warned that drilling cannot safely proceed given the current scientific gaps and uncertainties in the Arctic.

"Begich seemed to be advocating a cautionary approach to a headlong rush to drilling -- two concepts that don't go hand in hand," Shogan said in a statement. "While I commend his efforts to secure funding for research on the Arctic environment and oil spill response, I question his call to move forward on drilling before this research is even funded."

Shogan questioned Royal Dutch Shell PLC's promise that it could remove upward of 90 percent of an oil spill in the open water, a number she said is yet to be demonstrated in practice. Shogan also expressed concern that the company's worst-case scenario conditions were identified for August under optimal weather conditions in the Arctic.

Begich has noted that Shell accommodated local concerns by agreeing to halt development during the fall subsistence whale hunt and signing a conflict avoidance agreement with the Eskimo Whalers Commission. The company is also staging substantial resources to prevent and respond to a possible spill and is providing funds for additional scientific research, Begich said.

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska's north coast are believed to contain the nation's largest oil and gas resources, second only to the Gulf of Mexico, the commission said.

The Chukchi Sea in 2008 attracted more than $2.6 billion in high bids for leasing almost 2.8 million acres, including $2.1 billion from Shell. The company is seeking to drill one shallow-water exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this summer.

Those plans were set back in late December when a U.S. EPA appeals board remanded the company's Clean Air Act permits for further review (Greenwire, Jan. 5).

 

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