There is an important way for President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to show they are absorbing the lessons of the gulf oil spill and to reaffirm their pledge to proceed cautiously with offshore drilling in the future. That is to withhold the permits Shell Oil needs to proceed with a highly controversial drilling project in the Arctic Ocean.
The company owns two leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas — two of the most remote and frigid waters in North America. It hopes to begin exploratory drilling there as early as July. But it does not have final permits, which Mr. Salazar has the authority to deny.
The various laws governing offshore oil and gas activity and the National Environmental Policy Act allow for the suspension of activities whenever there is “significant new information relevant to environmental concerns.” There is no doubt that the gulf spill has provided significant new information — particularly about the inability of industry and government to respond to a huge blowout — as well as compelling evidence of the damage that a major spill can inflict.
Mr. Obama has asked a special commission to undertake a six-month investigation of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It makes no sense to allow new drilling to proceed anywhere until this investigation is complete — until the lessons of the gulf are fully absorbed and new, more effective policies are in place to prevent another disaster. Until then, Mr. Salazar should put Shell’s Alaska wells on hold.