Obama’s express goal for the trip is to bolster his agenda to combat global warmingby highlighting the toll rising temperatures have begun to take on Alaska. On Monday, the president will speak at a conference on Arctic issues and meet with the state’s governor in Anchorage, before departing to hike the Exit Glacier in the Kenai Mountains, meet with fishermen and visit Kotzebue, a Native village of 3,100 people that sits just above the Arctic Circle.
In his weekly address Saturday, Obama explained what he expected to find in Alaska: Americans who are “already living” with the effects of climate change, including frequent wildfires, shoreline erosion and melting sea ice and glaciers.
“This is all real,” Obama said. “This is happening to our fellow Americans right now.”
But some environmental advocates said that while they hoped Obama's visit would highlight the urgency of climate change, they also expressed widely held concerns about the potential for an oil spill, like the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Such an accident in the sensitive environment of the Arctic Circle could devastate the livelihood of Alaska Natives, environmentalists say.
“When you’re eating fish and animals out of the water … an oil spill would be catastrophic,” said Alex Whiting, an environmental specialist in Kotzebue, which is one of the three villages Obama will visit this week.
Obama has preempted those criticisms, acknowledging in his address Saturday that many Americans “are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters. …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.”
But environmental advocates say the spill is hardly their only concern. A recent study from the environmental group Clean Air Task Force found that drilling operations would likely emit considerable quantities of at least two major contributors to global warming — the greenhouse gas methane and harmful particulate matter black carbon. Oil drilling has also been linked to ocean acidification, a process that is already underway in the Arctic Ocean, environmentalists say.
And Obama’s decision to permit a new drilling operation in the year 2015 — as the White House pursues emissions reduction and invests in clean energy — reflects the central role of oil and gas in U.S. energy consumption and indicates that may not change in the near-term.
Obama said Saturday, transitioning away from dirty energy sources was crucial, but “our economy still has to rely on oil and gas.”
But critics argue that even if all goes according to plan with Shell’s drilling, oil might not start flowing for 20 years. As Shell Oil President Marvin Odum told CNBC in May, “These are potentially very large resources, but resources that would come online 10, 15, 20 years from now.”
“By that point,” Greenpeace’s Nichols said, “everyone agrees we have to have moved on from this fossil fuel economy. It’s the type of thing that will lock us into destruction.”
Groups opposed to Shell's Arctic drilling will host a protest in Anchorage on Monday as Obama meets with ministers from around the world for the GLACIER conference, a summit on Arctic issues.
Speakers at the rally will include Besse Odom with Alaska NAACP, Sweetwater Nannauck of Idle No More and Canadian First Nations activist Ta'Kaiya Blaney, a press release by the groups said. Solidarity rallies will be held in Seattle and Portland— the site of two major protests against Shell's Arctic drilling plans — throughout the day.
"We are in climate crisis here, and advancing energy extraction within our ancestral territories would seriously exacerbate climate change and threaten our ability to survive in the Arctic," Faith Gemmil, executive director of Resisting Environmental Destruction On Indigenous Lands (RedOil), said in a press release Monday.
Whiting, of the Kotzebue village, said he understood the political realities of Obama’s energy policy. “It’s sort of unreasonable to expect a politician will agree with you all the time,” he said. But he said he was still hopeful the visit would succeed in its stated purpose.
“A lot of us concerned about the issue are still excited that Obama’s coming to the Arctic,” he said. We will “continue to voice our concerns about the ... potential danger to our environment and resources. We’re going to try to make the best of it.”