Proposed Offshore Exploration Plan Limits Leases in Beaufort, Chukchi Seas

The Interior Department’s latest draft strategy for offshore
oil and gas leasing designates portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as off
limits from consideration for future oil and gas leaving, to protect areas of
critical importance to subsistence use by Alaska Natives, as well as for their
sensitive environmental resources. The announcement on Jan. 27 noted that in
December President Obama used this same authority under the Outer Continental
Shelf Lands Act ”to place waters of Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas development,
protecting an area known for its world class fisheries and stunning beauty.”
“We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique environment, so
we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” said
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “At the same time, the President is taking
thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska
Natives and wildlife.”
Four of the five areas withdrawn were previously excluded
from leasing in the current 2012-2017 oil and gas program, three of the five
were also excluded by the prior presidential administration. Those areas
include the Barrow and Kaktovik whaling area of the Beaufort Sea and a 25-mile
coastal buffer and subsistence area in the Chukchi Sea. The withdrawal also
includes the biologically rich Hanna Shoal area of the Chukchi Sea, which has
not previously been excluded from leasing. Interior officials noted that
extensive scientific research has found this area to be of critical importance
to many marine species, including Pacific walruses and bearded seals.

The announcement came on the heels of another announcement
from President Obama saying he would ask Congress to declare areas of the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Alaska as wilderness. That would
include areas of the coastal plain identified as possibly rich in oil and gas