Salazar Looks to Open More of Arctic to Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration

The Obama Administration is planning to open up areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for oil and gas exploration.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement June 26 in a teleconference from Trondheim, Norway, saying such activities would be part of a targeted leasing strategy – one that would put a few very sensitive areas of wildlife habitat off limits.
The five-year offshore leasing plan, which is opposed by environmental organizations and some Alaska Natives, would include potential lease sales for the Chukchi Sea in 2016 and the Beaufort Sea in 2017.

Meanwhile, many anticipate that Shell Oil will be granted permits to begin exploration this year, if the oil company meets final conditions of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that were developed after the Deepwater Horizon disaster two years ago.

Most Alaska officials, including Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, welcomed news of potential lease sales. Begich issued a statement saying “for over three years, my message to the Obama administration is that as America’s energy storehouse, Alaska can and should responsibly supply a significant portion of our country’s energy needs.” Begich said Salazar’s announcement showed that the Obama administration is getting the message.

But Lois Epstein, a member of the Interior Department’s Offshore Energy Safety Advisory Committee, and the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, called the potential lease “premature and technically problematic.”

Epstein said that by 2016, “there will not be cleanup technologies available to recover high percentages of oil released to the ocean, in ice or open water conditions.
“Currently oil spill recovery rates are in the single digits, percentage-wise,” she said.

“Additionally , this administration has not announced a plan to develop Arctic-specific regulatory standards for offshore drilling,” she said.

Epstein said that while there is a planned buffer along the Chukchi Sea coastline, because of its importance to subsistence hunters, the planned Beaufort Sea sale does not have a 25-mile protective buffer along the Beaufort coastline.

“With insufficient cleanup capabilities, inadequate science to establish an Arctic Ocean-wide ecological baseline, and limited drilling oversight that includes taking needed inspectors away from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s clear that we’re not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean and will not be by 2016 or 2017,” she said.