“Drill, baby drill!”
That’s the punchline. You already know the joke.
This week, President Obama and the Department of the Interior upheld a 2008 Arctic lease sale, allowing Royal Dutch Shell to return to exploratory oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea. The Interior Department will spend the next 30 days examining Shell’s summer drilling plan, but that company has already begun moving rigs to Alaska in preparation. By all accounts, this summer will mark a return to offshore oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean.
Alaskans should be cheered by the news.
Drilling in the Arctic has long been seen as a dangerous joke to environmentalists, who worry about a spill and the uninformed public who look at $45 per barrel oil and wonder how it can pay off. To them it seems like a foolish gamble.
The truth is serious and sobering. Even with improvements in hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. is living on borrowed time when it comes to oil. The Lower 48 has been squeezed like a damp sponge for almost a century and a half. There’s not much left.
The Arctic, with an estimated 20 percent of the world’s unexplored reserves, is the best hope for stability while the world transitions to clean energy. The world can’t quit its oil economy cold turkey. It needs time to change.
Arctic oil doesn’t make economic sense now, but this is only exploratory drilling. It will take decades for production to begin. Remember, even at Prudhoe Bay — on dry land — there was almost a full decade between discovery and production down the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Exploration can be done with minimal risk, allowing drillers to practice tools and techniques that will be needed for production wells.
Just as the world needs oil, so does Alaska. The 49th state is in a period of transition, just as the world is. Ours is more of an immediate problem, however. We need money. Budget cuts will only go so far — Alaska needs new revenue.
Alaska’s Congressional delegation is working hard — as it should — to ensure Alaska takes its share of any offshore oil discovered by Shell or others. The first step, however, is finding that oil.
Shell has learned, we hope, since its Kulluk rig ran aground while leaving Alaska. Time will tell if it has.
This newspaper has repeatedly counseled caution when dealing with the oil industry. We still believe so, but we cannot keep these companies at arm’s length forever. We rely on oil. We are addicted to it. We can’t quit in one hasty moment without harming the people who live in this state and driving away many others who rely on the industry for income.
Arctic drilling should advance, but it should advance slowly, with an abundance of caution. If the circumstances aren’t right, if there’s a challenge in the way, we can take a step back and try again.
Rather than the punch line of 2008, we suggest a new slogan:
“Drill, maybe drill.”
— Juneau Empire, April 3