Obama’s Alaska Visit Puts Climate, Not Energy, in Forefront

Source: By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, New York Times • Posted: Monday, August 31, 2015

Crew members on the Alex Haley, a Coast Guard ship, in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Circle this month. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times 

WASHINGTON —  President Obama will travel to Alaska on Monday to call for urgent and aggressive action to tackle climate change, capitalizing on a poignant tableau of melting glaciers, crumbling permafrost and rising sea levels to illustrate the immediacy of an issue he hopes to make a central element of his legacy.

But during a three-day trip choreographed to lend spectacular visuals and real-world examples to Mr. Obama’s message on global warming, he will pay little heed to the oil and gas drilling offshore that he allowed to go forward just this month, a move that activists say is an unsavory blot on an otherwise ambitious climate record.

While the Arctic is a fitting backdrop for the president’s call to action, it is also a place where the conflicting threads of his environmental policy collide, and where the bracing public debate over how to address the warming of the planet is particularly animated.

“It’s inconsistent on the one hand for President Obama to lead the world toward comprehensive action on climate change, while on the other allowing companies to pursue difficult, expensive oil in dangerous and remote places,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, an environmental group.


Kotzebue, Alaska, an Inuit village, is being overtaken by the sea because of eroding soil brought on by the melting permafrost and stronger storms that come with higher temperatures. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times 

While Mr. Obama has taken unprecedented steps to reduce the nation’s demand for the fossil fuels that cause climate change, enacting new rules that cut emissions while pressing for a major global accord, he has done far less to shift investment away from oil and gas development. That has boomed during his presidency, bringing economic benefits in the form of jobs and lower electricity prices.

The challenge is highlighted in Alaska, where many citizens are grappling with the devastating effects of climate change even as they depend on energy development for their livelihoods. In becoming the first sitting American president to visit Arctic Alaska, Mr. Obama is confronting those conflicting pressures.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, the president acknowledged, as he had in the past, that although he was pushing to transition the nation “away from dirty energy sources that threaten our health and our environment,” the economy was still reliant on oil and gas.

“As long as that’s the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports, and we should demand the highest safety standards in the industry — our own,” Mr. Obama said. “I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well.”

At issue this time is a long-delayed application by Royal Dutch Shell, to which the Obama administration gave final approval two weeks ago, to begin drilling for oil and gas in untouched waters of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast. The president does not plan to interact with Shell during his trip, White House officials said, but he will travel to the town of Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle, where the company has set up some of its equipment.

Kotzebue and many of its neighbors — Inuit villages that are being overtaken by the sea because of soil erosion, brought on by melting permafrost and stronger storms that come with higher temperatures — are potent real-time examples of what Mr. Obama has called a climate wake-up call.

At a State Department climate conference in Anchorage on Monday, Mr. Obama will call for sweeping collective action on climate change, pushing for commitments designed to propel a global accord in December at a United Nations summit meeting in Paris. Then he plans to hopscotch the state bearing witness to the effects of rising temperatures, hiking Exit Glacier in Seward on Tuesday and meeting Wednesday with salmon fishermen in Dillingham, on pristine Bristol Bay, before journeying to Kotzebue.

“This is an issue that is very here and now,” said Brian Deese, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser on climate policy. “The issue of climate change is not an issue of the future tense in Alaska. It is affecting people in their lives and livelihoods in real ways.”

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and the author of “The Quiet World,” which documents conservation efforts in Alaska, said Mr. Obama had spoken privately of how difficult it was to get the climate change story across to the news media, particularly given that Americans “don’t want to feel that they’re doing something wrong driving the S.U.V. to pick up their kids at school.”

“Going up to glacier country is the most visceral way to do that, and it’s really a culmination of President Obama going from being the climate change educator of America to trying to be seen now as a climate activist,” Mr. Brinkley said.

Still, in traveling to the Arctic — a region that has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the world over the past six decades, with its northernmost reaches losing more than a football field a day of land because of coastal erosion and rising seas — Mr. Obama will also be implicitly making the case against the drilling he has authorized.

“The glaring, inconvenient truth is that when you step onto ground zero and visit communities where they’re falling into the sea because of rapidly melting ice, you are witnessing the dramatic impacts of continuing down this path of fossil fuel development,” said Franz A. Matzner, director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Environmental groups and progressive activists have been quick to point out the incongruity in Mr. Obama’s Arctic trip. On Thursday, the social-change group Credo began a campaign attacking the president for what it called his “self-defeating hypocrisy” on the climate, calling for Americans to flood the White House with phone calls and petition signatures demanding an end to Arctic drilling.

Conservationists, native leaders and climate activists are holding a rally against Arctic drilling in Anchorage on Monday to coincide with Mr. Obama’s arrival.

At the same time, some Alaskans are asking for just the opposite. Last week, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents the business interests of the Arctic Slope Inupiat tribe, released a television advertisement calling on Mr. Obama to “stand with Alaskans and continue to support Arctic energy development.”

The timing of the Shell decision was particularly awkward for the White House, coming so soon before Mr. Obama embarks on his Arctic sojourn. Advisers have argued that the president had no legal option but to process the permit based on leases sold to Shell for $2.1 billion by President George W. Bush’s administration. More broadly, the administration argues that drilling off the Alaska coast is simply a matter of bowing to the reality that the country remains dependent on fossil fuels, and working to ensure that the work is done domestically and under stringent safety rules.

“We might wish for an instantaneous transformation that was drastically less reliant on oil and gas and coal, or at least that used technologies for oil and gas and coal that reduced greatly the emissions associated with that, but we don’t live in a magical world,” said John P. Holdren, senior adviser to Mr. Obama on science and technology. “If you’re going to be using oil and gas, it’s better to produce it here than somewhere else. We have by far the strongest environmental and safety oversight of any country.”