Alaska Delegation asks to remove regional basins from Offshore Continental Shelf oil and gas lease sale
The Alaska Delegation consisting of Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young have send out a letter to Dept. of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in support of a draft proposed program for Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing 2019-2014, but also requested the exclusion of the Hope Basin, Norton Basin, St. Matthew-Hall, Navarin Basin, Aleutian Basin, Bowers Basin, the Aleutian Arc, St. George Basin, Shumagin, Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska.
In their letter they lauded the Trump administration’s approach to “include the broadest subset of OCS regions and program areas in the DPP.” DPP is short for draft proposed program.
The letter also encouraged the Dept. of Interior to consult all stakeholders. “We strongly support the inclusion of the Chukchi and Beaufort planning areas in the DPP and encourage you to maintain three lease sales in each area over the 2019-2024 period. At the same time, given the diversity of stakeholders in this region, we urge you to commit your Department to meaningful consultation with local communities,” the letter says. “In our view, properly supporting the leasing, exploration and production of the resources in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will require a concerted effort from participating federal agencies and all stakeholders in Alaska.”
The letter came as a surprise to regional tribes, who through Kawerak Inc., the Bering Sea Elders Group and Association of Village Council Presidents have lobbied in the past to protect these waters as they are important subsistence areas and also lobbied for government-to-government consultations. Marine Advocate Austin Ahmasuk with Kawerak Inc. said in an interview with the Nome Nugget that he was surprised and pleased to see the letter from the Alaska Congressional Delegation that asked to take 11 of the 19 areas that were on the table out of the proposed oil and gas lease sale scheduled to be held between 2019 and 2024.
When the program was first announced in August 2017, Kawerak submitted comments during the public scoping period. In a letter, Kawerak opposed the potential oil and gas leasing and exploration in the Hope, Navarin, St. Matthew Hall and Norton Basins. “These basins are where tribes from our region have harvested subsistence resources for millennia and where local people from our region fish and crab commercially,” Kawerak’s comment letter read. If these areas stay on the potential lease sale list, they could be potentially be open to oil and gas exploration in 2023. “These basins are vitally important to our survival and oil and gas activities pose a serious threat to marine life and safety in these areas,” Kawerak’s comment read.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the agency under the Dept. of the Interior to develop OCS oil and gas leasing programs nationwide. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on January 4 announced the next step for developing the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024. The new proposal aims to make over 90 percent of the total federal OCS acreage and more than 98 percent of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available to consider for future exploration and development. Under the Obama administration, 94 percent of the OCS areas were off limits to oil and gas exploration. Zinke said in the announcement that the program proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history. The Draft Proposed Program includes 47 potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 planning areas – 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific Region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and nine in the Atlantic Region. “This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed for the National OCS Program’s 5-year lease schedule,” a DoI press release said. The governors of Florida and North Carolina have asked for the removal of leases in their region due to the fear that oil and gas drilling may impact their main industry, which is tourism.
In recorded interview Senator Lisa Murkowski explained that the process is such that no areas can be added to a draft proposal, areas can be removed. In contrast to the Obama administration, which offered only 5 percent of the nation’s OCS areas to be available for oil and gas lease sales, the Trump administration has reversed the approach. “They basically said, ‘These are the federal offshore areas, we’re going to take about 95 percent of them and put it all on the table in this first draft, this draft round, and we’re going to hear comments and we’re going to make determinations over this draft time and see what is appropriate to take in and what should come out. So that’s the process we are in right now,” Murkowski said. “I kind of like the broader approach and being able then to take off the table those areas that are not opportune at this time. From our perspective, we think there are some areas in the draft plan that we think are not ripe for leasing. We’ve told the secretary that, so that will be taken into account as he then reviews these proposals coming in from not only Alaska.”
Asked about her level of confidence that the secretary takes into consideration those areas that the delegation didn’t consider ripe for drilling, Murkowski answered that she certainly hopes “that he would not only take into account my views, the views of the entire Alaska delegation, I know that our Governor has weighted in strongly that there are areas in Alaska that we think have some significant potential, in the Arctic, the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, and down in Cook Inlet, those three areas we have identified as being areas that we think should clearly be in play in this lease sale.”
Murkowski said that it is proven that companies can safely drill in Cook Inlet. As for other parts of the Alaskan OCS areas, she said, “We look to environmental consideration, to the bowhead whale, these are all part of what has been reviewed. It was only after extensive review that Shell was given their permits,” she said. “But Shell determined that after seven or six years and about seven billion dollars and one dry well, that they didn’t have the staying power, from a shareholder perspective, to stick out another five or seven years and billions, so they have pulled out, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a level of interest in the area.” Asked if it is known whether or not there is economic interest to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, Murkowski answered, “We don’t know. We don’t know, but if you don’t put the leases up on the table and make them available, you will never know.”
The only area that is not on the table is the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area that has been under presidential withdrawal since December 2014. It is the Bristol Bay area, known for its world-class salmon fishery.
A public comment meeting was set to take place on January 23 in Anchorage, but due to the three-day government shut-down due to a congressional budget impasse, the meeting was canceled. It is now rescheduled to take place in Anchorage on Feb. 21.