Shell Arctic oil drilling reaction ‘overblown’ – US envoy

Admiral Papp says conditional approval to explore polar waters just ‘another step’, as ‘kayaktivists’ protest in Seattle

US Admiral Papp this January (Flickr/ Arctic Council)

US Admiral Papp this January (Flickr/ Arctic Council)

By Alex Pashley

America’s special representative for the Arctic has said coverage of Shell’s tentative green light to drill in the region has been exaggerated.

“The stories have been a little bit overblown where we are with Shell,” Admiral Robert Papp told reporters in a press call on Monday.

“This is properly Department of Interior business and what they done is approved another step in the process for Shell to drill in the Arctic, not final approval.”

Last week, the federal department cleared the Anglo-Dutch company to restart operations off the coast of Alaska, three years after it was forced to halt them, following a string of safety failures including an oil rig fire.

Bill McKibben founder of, which has coordinated a global fossil fuel divestment movement said the decision amounted to “one of the greatest acts of corporate irresponsibility in the planet’s history”.

Green groups have warned of potential spills in the fragile icy conditions without sufficient guards to respond to leaks.

Middle ground 

Papp’s remarks come as the US sets out its stall for its two-year chairmanship of the region’s governing body, the Arctic Council.

The envoy will travel to the US’ northernmost city of Barrow, Alaska, 350 miles above the Arctic Circle in the coming weeks to speak with locals. Some of those favour offshore extraction, Papp said.

Report: US vision for Arctic Council chair

Methane leaks through cracks in the ice cover of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska (Flickr/ NASA Earth Observatory)

Methane leaks through cracks in the ice cover of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska (Flickr/ NASA Earth Observatory)

“Alaskans feel the President is shutting down the Arctic, environmental groups say he is opening it up.

“When you look at both ends of the spectrum, the President has chosen a middle ground, showing we need a continual development of fossil fuels while at the same time renewable energies as well,” he added.

Shell AGM

Shell estimates that the Arctic holds around 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil, and has already spent $6 billion on exploration.

But if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming, that Arctic oil is “unburnable”, scientists have warned.

And tomorrow a shareholder resolution will table a proposal at the company’s AGM, which if successful, would force the company to analyse which assets could be stranded by global curbs on greenhouse gases.

Last month, BP did just that.

Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank said the administration was taking a “very risky position”.

“President Obama is trying to move forward in the Arctic with a balanced approach, with high environmental standards for oil and gas development, and a focus on climate change in the Arctic Council.

“But nonetheless the Department of the Interior has indicated a 75% chance that there will be an oil spill and we still do not have the infrastructure, the technological capability, or the know-how to be able to respond.”

Paddle in Seattle 

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters took to the port of Seattle in kayaks after Shell’s two huge rigs arrived at the harbour. More demonstrations are planned under the slogan #ShellNo.

Aside from the Shell furore, Papp told RTCC the US would flex its muscles as Arctic Council chair on curbs to black carbon pollution, a chief driver of the region’s melting ice sheets as it heats up twice as fast as global temperatures.

He said he would work to gain consensus within the eight member council – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US along with indigenous groups and observer states like China – to make inventories of polluters and tackle flaring.

“We will take the message to remainder of the world to the COP in Paris that it’s not just the black carbon produced in the Arctic but pollutants produced around the world that needs to be controlled as well.”

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