In Alaska, Obama to walk fine line on climate change, energy

29 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Climate change happening ‘right now,’ Obama says ahead of Alaska trip.

With melting glaciers and rising seas as his backdrop, President Barack Obama will visit Alaska next week to press for urgent global action to combat climate change, even as he carefully calibrates his message in a state heavily dependent on oil. The state — currently experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record — is expected to see its average temperatures rise by 6 to 12 degrees if nothing is done to halt climate change, Obama said.

Barack Obama has been forced to defend his decision to allow the hunt for oil in the last great wilderness of the Arctic, on the eve of an historic visit to Alaska intended to spur the fight against climate change. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska,” the president said. “We don’t rubber-stamp permits. The three-day tour – which will include a hike across a shrinking glacier and visits to coastal communities buffeted by sea-level rise and erosion – was intended to showcase the real-time effects of climate change. The state’s political leaders are anxious about whether Obama’s trip will coincide with new executive actions or regulations that could further strain an economy already rocked by slumping oil prices. Obama, who is seeking to rally world leaders to commit to lowering greenhouse gas emissions ahead of a global climate change conference in Paris in December, said that “rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community” in Alaska.

The unambiguous goal of the president’s trip is to use dramatic and alarming changes to Alaska’s climate to instill fresh urgency into his global warming agenda. Obama said that if Americans do nothing about climate change, Alaskan temperatures are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 and 6.7 Celsius) by the end of the century, affecting many industries. The president “doesn’t go to anybody’s state and stay three days and not do something,” senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said at an August 6 breakfast with Bloomberg editors and reporters in Washington. “Many Alaskans have expressed anxiety and worry about further land use designations or ocean preserves that would permanently lock away resources critical to our state and local economies,” Representative Don Young, a Republican who has represented the state since 1973, said in an email. Sea ice is melting, critical permafrost is thawing and Alaska’s cherished glaciers are liquefying — powerful visuals that Obama hopes will illustrate the threat to natural wonders and livelihoods and serve as a global call to action.

Climate change poses the same threat, right now.” The president is striking a tricky balance between environmental conservation and energy production — he has long supported expanded oil drilling off the Alaskan coast, the very fuel that has contributed to global warming. A few weeks ago, his administration gave Royal Dutch Shell a final permit to drill into oil-bearing rock off Alaska’s northwest coast for the first time in more than two decades. “The president has made great strides in protecting the Arctic, but we are really disappointed with this decision,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society. “This is a point where we disagree.” For many Alaskans, though, the issue comes down to dollars and cents. Last week he approved oil drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea, heartening those who support Alaska’s drilling industry, but irritating environmentalists who say drilling in Alaska damages the environment and extends U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. On arrival in Anchorage on August 31, the president will address a conference of foreign ministers, scientists and scholars from more than a dozen countries with interests in the Arctic region.

Both the state government and its residents rely deeply on oil revenues to stay afloat, and falling oil prices have already created a serious budget deficit. Brian Deese, Obama’s senior adviser, sought to strike a balance between Alaska’s economics needs and the president’s goal to eventually phase out fossil fuels. “That’s a transition that is not going to happen overnight,” Deese said. Later in his trip, Obama will meet with residents of Alaskans who the White House says have been hurt by climate change and other environmental perils.

In the meantime, he added, “oil and gas will remain important parts of our overall energy mix.” Ahead of Obama’s visit, state Republican leaders emphasized the need for more energy development and urged Obama not to exploit the state’s stunning scenery for political purposes. The group says fishing equipment has harmed fragile coral and sponge habitats, and that the government should do more to protect vulnerable animals in the area. “This is the talk about town. ‘Oh my gosh, what’s he gonna do? Last September, he broadened the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument to nearly half a million square miles, over the objections of tuna fishermen operating in the region.

In an unusual presidential photo-op, Obama will travel Tuesday to Seward, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where the Exit Glacier is retreating in what environmentalists say is a dramatic sign of warming temperatures. Giving the go-ahead to Shell to drill two exploratory wells in the harsh and unforgiving conditions puts the Arctic at risk of a spill, campaign groups argue. Then he’ll fly north to Kotzebue, a regional hub in the Alaska Arctic, where Obama will focus on the plight of rural, native villages where livelihoods are threatened by encroaching climate change.

More than half the state’s budget and 90 per cent of the government’s discretionary spending comes from oil revenue, which has rapidly declined thanks to a strengthening US dollar and a glut of oil. Walker said in a phone interview that he will emphasise the state’s economic challenges to Obama, and highlight opportunities to increase rather than reduce energy production.

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