US bill to accelerate speed and spread of Arctic drilling due in Congress this week

By John Parnell

A raft of oil and gas drilling licences will be issued off the coast of Alaska, opening up additional areas for exploitation, if a bill in congress this week were to pass into law.

Onshore oilfields in Alaska's north have been exploited for years but offshore drilling raises new logistical and environmental concerns. (Source: Flickr/Zieak)

The bill proposes to more than double the number of auctions for offshore drilling licences in the US during the next five years from 12 to 29. It would also open up new territories in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of California, and most controversially, off the coast of Alaska.

The move comes at a time when Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign is at fever pitch.

Greenpeace and other NGOs argue that the delicate nature of the Arctic environment, plus harsh drilling conditions and difficult spill response scenarios make any oil and gas exploration extremely hazardous.

Others believe that exploiting vast fossil fuel reserves could derail attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the development of the renewable energy industry.

Shell is expected to begin drilling its first Arctic wells in the next three weeks, despite a number of setbacks including an in-harbour accident with a support vessel and the negative attention from the Greenpeace campaign.

The bill has received vociferous report from sections of the House who believe it could boost the country’s stagnant economy.

“In stark contrast to President Obama’s plan that outsources American jobs and American energy, the bipartisan plan that passed today is an environmentally responsible drill-smart plan that will create jobs, grow our economy, and lower gasoline prices with more American energy,” said Republican Congressman Doc Hastings.

The bill, “Congressional Replacement of President Obama’s Energy-Restricting and Job-Limiting Offshore Drilling Plan” to give it its full name, proposes selling licences in the Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, Chukchi Sea and the Aleutian Basin, all off the coast of Alaska.

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