Arctic drilling complaint clears Legislature

After passing a landmark gas pipeline deal, the Alaska House approved a formal complaint against the Obama administration’s decision to cancel oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic.

Unlike the gas pipeline bill, which passed unanimously in the House, the Arctic complaint broke mostly along majority/minority lines as it passed 27-12, with one representative absent.

The House majority is Republican-led. Its minority is Democratic-led.

The complaint, Senate Joint Resolution 301, declares that the Alaska Legislature is unhappy with the federal government’s decision to cancel Arctic Ocean lease sales, saying in part, the “Alaska State Legislature urges the United States Department of the Interior to reconsider its actions and continue to promote oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.”

The complaint, a joint document of the House and Senate, is not a binding document and is a de facto letter of complaint. The Senate passed SJR301 on Tuesday.

While waters up to 3 miles offshore are under the jurisdiction of the state, drilling more than that distance falls in the outer continental shelf, which is governed by the federal government.

The outer shelf of the Arctic Ocean, according to federal estimates, contains 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Thanks to distance and environmental conditions, those resources are difficult to reach. Environmental groups have said drilling could also expose the Arctic to the danger of polluting spills. This year, after spending more than $7 billion to drill a single exploratory well in the region, Royal Dutch Shell announced it was abandoning Arctic operations.

In the wake of that announcement, the federal government said it was canceling lease sales planned for 2016 and 2017, and would not extend the existing Arctic leases of Shell and Statoil, which expire in 2020 and 2017, respectively.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, offered an impassioned speech in support of the resolution.

“It just galls me when people try to get in the way of progress for our people,” he said. “Enough! Let’s use those resources to our benefit.”

“OCS development is clearly the future of oil and gas development on the globe,” said Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River.

Members of the House minority speaking in opposition to the resolution said they aren’t against Arctic drilling, merely that the issue was being brought up during a special session called to address a natural gas pipeline.

“The governor’s call asked to come in and talk about TransCanada, and I don’t see TransCanada mentioned,” said Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, supplied a legal memo and testimony that said while the resolution was legal, it was a bad precedent.

“There’s obviously precedent for doing this, but there’s a danger in doing this very often,” he said.

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