Date ArticleType
6/17/2016 Member News
Interior Department Hears Conflicting Cries over Offshore Arctic Drilling

Interior Department hears conflicting cries over offshore Arctic drilling

WASHINGTON — Opposing forces are pressing the U.S. Department of the Interior over the Obama administration's latest proposed offshore drilling plan, with each saying the fate of Alaska's Arctic rests in the balance.

The department's proposed offshore drilling plan for 2017 through 2022 made waves with plans to close off drilling prospects in the Atlantic Ocean, and few options for the Arctic. The draft plan would include 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska — one each in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Cook Inlet.

Now the department has a final decision to make, and advocates say the decision could cement the fate of the Arctic, shifting the future direction of drilling there.

Thursday marked the final day for public submissions commenting on the draft plan. No lease sales can be added to the final plan, but the three planned sales could be dropped. In a flurry of public input this week, high-profile figures urged Interior officials to either keep the Arctic sales in place, or drop them altogether.

Arctic drilling advocates have had a difficult stretch recently. The Obama administration closed off portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to drilling. In September, Royal Dutch Shell PLC gave up its $7 billion Arctic exploration effort. And the next month, the federal department canceled the Arctic lease sales planned in the current five-year program, citing low industry interest and poor oil market conditions. More recently, several companies relinquished their Arctic leases.

In one letter, 16 high-ranking military veterans pointed to the strategic significance of the Arctic, urging the Obama administration to consider the region's security needs and how private infrastructure investments could aid the White House, Defense Department and Coast Guard in terms of "cost, resources and expertise."

"Keeping the Arctic in the program maintains our options; exclusion irreversibly eliminates them," they wrote. The letter included signatures from former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Ralston and several former heads of the Alaskan Command.

That echoes what Alaska's congressional delegation said last month, as they urged the administration to keep the three lease sales in the program. "A renewed emphasis on offshore leasing can and must serve as the first step towards a workable regulatory regime for the Alaska OCS (outer continental shelf," they wrote in a letter.

New sources of oil in northern Alaska are "vital to the continued safe operation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System," which they note is currently operating "at far less than half of its capacity."

Getting oil into the pipeline is critical to the future and health of Alaska's economy, according to a coalition of Alaska organizations that wrote to Interior officials Thursday, including AFL-CIO Alaska, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and other pro-development organizations.