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Obama hands Alaskan drilling rights to Shell

Tribune Magazine

December 17, 2009 11.59 pmby David Hencke, Westminster correspondent

Barack Obama’s administration has granted Shell the right to drill for oil in the environmentally sensitive seas off Alaska during the middle of climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

The decision to allow three exploratory wells in the Chukchi sea – home to polar bears and whales – has enraged environmentalists and native Americans since it seems to signal that President Obama will not reverse George W Bush’s plans to drill for more oil in the Arctic.

Previously, Mr Obama had delayed a decision into the controversial drilling plans put forward by Shell since they leased a huge block of the sea off north-west Alaska for $2.8 billion.

It is a highly controversial deal since it was referred to the United States courts by protestors. The Court of Appeal had ruled the acquisition improper in 2008 – and the situation is still unresolved.

The announcement was made by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He said: “A key component of reducing our country’s dependence on foreign oil is the environmentally responsible exploration and development of America’s renewable and conventional resources. By approving this exploration plan, we are taking a cautious but deliberate step toward developing additional information on the Chukchi Sea.”

The sea is believed to hold about 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and about 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But indigenous people are furious at the decision,

announced just before Mr Salazar addressed the Copenhagen summit.

Colleen Swan of Kivalina, a community next to the Chuckchi Sea, said: “As Alaska Natives, our ancestral ways of life and homelands are imperilled by devastating proposals for fossil fuel drilling and development.

“These fossil fuels are carbon that will compound climate change, and the ecological devastation we see is also compounded by the impacts of climate change, and so it is a lose-lose.”

Shell is delighted with the decision. Pete Saliby, the company’s Alaska vice president, said: “Shell believes the Chukchi Sea could become home to some of the most prolific, undiscovered hydrocarbon basins in North America.”

The decision is a double whammy for Shell since they have also become one of the largest players in Iraq, buying into the oil fields there.

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