Obama administration cancels Arctic offshore lease sales through 2022

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has canceled proposed plans to hold oil lease sales for Arctic offshore waters through 2022.

“The plan focuses lease sales in the best places – those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure – and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release Friday. “Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward.”

The move is a change from earlier this year, when the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management proposed three lease sales in Alaska — two in the Arctic — during the five-year period.

The new plan for years 2017 to 2022 includes one Cook Inlet offshore lease sale and none in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas.

The plan proposed in March shut down hopes for Atlantic coast offshore drilling, following opposition from residents, the fishing industry and the Defense Department, but kept Arctic drilling on the table. At the time, Jewell said canceling lease sales in Alaska was still a possibility but not the administration’s “main focus.”

The new lease plan is far short of the 2012-17 lease plan, which initially offered seven lease sales.

But no Arctic offshore leases have been sold since 2008, and the Interior Department canceled its Cook Inlet sale in 2015, citing lack of interest.

The Friday release sets the program in motion just under the wire for the 60-day approval period, making it a bit more difficult for president-elect Trump to rescind the order. The lease sale program will become effective on July 1, 2017.

The Interior Department announcement said its decision was based on “the fragile and unique Arctic ecosystem” and a recent “decline in industry interest.” The department cited “significant risks to sensitive marine resources and communities from potential new leasing in the Arctic.”

That declining interest comes after Shell announced in September 2015 that it was abandoning its Alaska program after exploration drilling yielded disappointing results. The next month, the Interior Department canceled Arctic lease sales, citing low interest.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.