Alaska’s Arctic is left out of Biden administration’s latest offshore drilling plan

The proposed new five-year plan now goes to a 90-day public comment period.

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Remnants sea ice that has survived the summer float among newly formed, thinner ice in this image taken in the Beaufort Sea on Sept. 30, 2016. (Alek Petty / NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday unveiled a five-year proposal for U.S. offshore oil and gas development in areas of existing production, and said the final plan may have anywhere from zero to 11 lease sales.

None of those sales would be in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas along Alaska’s northern coast. The proposed plan does include a single possible sale in the water of Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska. The remaining 10 potential sales are in the Gulf of Mexico.

The most recent five-year plan also excluded Arctic waters from lease sales.

The range of options, between two auctions a year and none at all, sought to balance the administration’s efforts to fight climate change with its calls to increase oil and gas supplies in the face of soaring fuel prices.

The proposal mirrors the recently expired five-year offshore drilling plan put forward by former President Barack Obama’s administration. It is much narrower than one proposed but not adopted in 2018 by former President Donald Trump’s administration, which offered acreage off most of the Atlantic and Pacific as well.

That Trump administration plan also sought to roll back protections put in place by Barack Obama’s administration that ended lease sales in most Arctic waters. That rollback was ultimately struck down by a federal court in 2019. Apart from some activity in existing leases close to shore, the region has seen little interest from the oil industry since Shell pulled out of a high-profile exploration program in 2015.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the proposal does not mean the administration will move forward with any of the auctions.

“From Day One, President Biden and I have made clear our commitment to transition to a clean energy economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today, we put forward an opportunity for the American people to consider and provide input on the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The time for the public to weigh in on our future is now.”

The department will take public comments for 90 days before writing a final plan. There is no mandated timeline for the completion of the process, a senior Interior Department official said on a call.

Release of the document, which is mandated by Congress, came a day after the expiration of the previous plan, and late in the day ahead of the three-day July Fourth holiday weekend.

In a statement, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Marty Durbin said the plan sent “mixed signals” to consumers and businesses.

“Reliable, affordable energy requires long term planning, a government-wide approach and clear signals to the market,” Durbin said in a statement. “This proposal provides none of that.”

Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, praised the administration for putting “a no-drilling option on equal footing with drilling options” and said it would advocate for that choice.

With additions from ArcticToday.