Alaska Governor nominates US Arctic waters for offshore oil and gas leasing

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Gov. Bill Walker speaks during a press conference in Juneau on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Gov. Walker congratulated the Senate on passing SB 128, the Permanent Fund spending bill, and asked the House to do the same. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Gov. Bill Walker speaks during a press conference in Juneau on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has nominated the two seas covering the Arctic Ocean’s U.S. continental shelf for inclusion in the federal government’s five-year offshore leasing program, a proposal shared with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell before her trip north to attend the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Friday.

The action is an unusual step meant to encourage Jewell to include the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the 2017 to 2022 outer-continental shelf lease plan, a move that would leave the door open for future oil exploration off Alaska’s coast, state officials said.

Jewell is expected to decide whether the lease sales remain in the program before President Obama leaves office Jan. 20. The sales are strongly opposed by conservation groups seeking to stop offshore oil and gas exploration in the remote region, while many Alaskans support development there.

Jewell is not planning to make an announcement related to lease sales during her trip to Alaska, said Jessica Kershaw, deputy communications director at the Interior Department. Jewell also has no plans to make announcements related to another controversial topic in Alaska — concerns that President Obama will create new federal sanctuaries or monuments in the state, Kershaw said.

When Jewell addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives on Friday afternoon, she will focus on collaborative management opportunities with Native groups related to public lands and resources.

Walker made the nomination in a letter to Jewell on Oct. 6.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a press conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, to discuss her visit to Alaska. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a press conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, to discuss her visit to Alaska. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

In addition to numerous sales in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government’s draft plan calls for one lease sale in the Beaufort in 2020 and another in the Chukchi in 2022. A sale is also planned for federal waters in Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska in 2021, a less contentious area that Walker also formally nominated for a lease sale.

If the Arctic lease sales are held, the state will nominate specific tracts for inclusion, the letter said.

High-priority areas of interest for the state include federal Beaufort Sea waters extending along the coast southeast of Barrow for about 300 miles, as well as potential Chukchi Sea prospects in the region where Shell drilled in 2015, according to Andy Mack, Alaska Natural Resources commissioner.

The areas of interest take care to avoid waters considered environmentally sensitive by the federal government, including large sections in the Chukchi that are important for walrus, a subsistence food for Alaska Natives.

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Mack said the proposed lease sale’s guiding law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, gives strong weight to the views of affected state and local governments.

North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. also expressed support for the lease sales as long as the federal government provides protections and benefits for North Slope villages, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Brower is chair of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission that helps manage bowhead subsistence hunts in 11 villages.

“We intend to work with the state of Alaska on these issues going forward,” Brower said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, supported the state’s nomination and said there was strong support in Alaska for the proposed federal lease sales.

“While officials in the Obama administration have mistakenly claimed that there is limited interest in developing our OCS, Alaska’s oil and gas managers are busy proving that notion wrong, as they lease to companies in state waters for fields that extend into federal waters,” said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Kershaw said Jewell plans to meet with Walker Thursday evening after she arrives in Alaska.

On Friday morning, Jewell also plans to visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been invited to visit the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility near Fairbanks.

“It will be an opportunity to focus on climate science research the university is working on and to learn about the impacts over time based on their observations,” Kershaw said.