Alaska still in future offshore lease sale schedule

ANCHORAGE — The Obama administration’s five-year offshore drilling plan announced Tuesday includes three future lease sales off Alaska and six areas in state waters that will be closely reviewed for possible environmental and other conflicts with oil and gas activities.

The plan by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell covers all potential federal offshore lease sales from 2017 through 2022. The public will have 90 days to comment.

Most of the attention at Jewell’s news conference was directed at the elimination of potential drilling off the Atlantic Coast. Environmental groups were hoping there would be no lease sales in Arctic waters.

The plan for Alaska includes potential sales in the Beaufort Sea in 2020, Cook Inlet in 2021, and Chukchi Sea in 2022. It calls for close review of a handful of areas important to migrating beluga, bowhead and gray whales and possible protections for hunting areas used by villages sprinkled along Alaska’s north coast.

Cindy Shogun, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said her group was disappointed that Arctic sites remain in the plan but appreciate that the locations could receive additional protection.

“With the high risk of a large oil spill, drilling in America’s Arctic is irresponsible and risky,” she said in a prepared statement.

Gov. Bill Walker said the inclusion of Alaska in the plan was good news.

“I look forward to having detailed and nuanced conversations about how we can construct lease sales so they benefit Alaska economically, but also limit risks to other activities,” Walker said in a statement.

The federal government estimates the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil. However, future Arctic offshore drilling may be more affected by economics than federal lease sales.

Citing disappointing results from an exploratory well in the Chukchi, and a challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment, Royal Dutch Shell announced in September that it would abandon drilling in U.S. Arctic waters for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the lease plan on the surface sounded positive but was like a car dealership announcing a lease sale without any keys. The administration has to be willing to work with, instead of against, lease holders, he said in a statement.

“The energy industry was watching Shell’s ordeal in the Arctic closely,” Sullivan said. “Largely as a result of confusing and conflicting regulations, that company spent seven years and $7 billion to drill a single well. Few, if any companies, could afford a repeat.”

Jewell said there’s a spectrum of protections available for the six environmentally important areas in Alaska.

“If it’s something that is seasonal, like a migration of a marine mammal, for example, one might look at a lease that has stipulations that would mitigate for that,” Jewell said. “If it’s an area that is particularly biologically sensitive, you might do a permanent withdrawal.”

The Alaska areas include Barrow Canyon, a conduit for Pacific water into the Arctic Ocean and an important foraging route for whales and seabirds.

Camden Bay west of the village of Kaktovik was listed as important for bowhead, beluga and seal feeding. Cross Island north of Prudhoe Bay is important for bowhead migration and polar bear denning and feeding.

Also listed were waters around Hanna Shoal, a biologically abundant area off northwest Alaska that attracts walrus and bearded seals.

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