Trump administration plans to reopen closed Arctic waters off Alaska to oil and gas drilling

By Yereth Rosen, Arctic Now - January 4, 2018
The Kulluk conical drilling unit works in the Beaufort Sea at a Shell Alaska prospect recently offshore from the North Slope. The rig was made specifically to drill in Arctic conditions and is owned outright by Shell. Following several weeks of drilling at Shell Alaska OCS prospects, Shell has concluded its 2012 exploratory drilling programs in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. "The work we accomplished in drilling the top portion of the Burger-A well in the Chukchi Sea and the Sivulliq well in the Beaufort Sea will go a long way in positioning Shell for a successful drilling program in 2013," said spokesman Curtis Smith. "Shell deployed numerous assets and rotated thousands of employees to the Arctic for the first time in 20 years. We are very pleased with the work we accomplished this year and look forward to picking up where we left off when the sea ice retreats in 2013." (Shell Alaska)
The Kulluk conical drilling unit works in the Beaufort Sea at a Shell Alaska prospect in 2012. (Shell Alaska)

The Trump administration is seeking to reopen offshore Arctic areas that were closed to oil and gas leasing by the Obama administration, as well as almost all federal waters off Alaska.
The Department of Interior’s draft five-year national leasing plan, released on Thursday, proposes 19 Alaska lease sales — three in the Chukchi Sea, three in the Beaufort Sea, two in Cook Inlet and one each in 11 other regions, some of which have never had any lease sales.
The Obama administration in late 2016 took most federal Arctic waters off the table for oil and gas leasing. That administration placed the entire Chukchi Sea off-limits and all but a 2.8-million-acre strip of territory relatively close to shore in the Beaufort Sea.

The Obama administration’s move came after Shell in 2015 ended its multibillion-dollar attempt to explore for oil in the Arctic offshore. That attempt produced a disastrous drill-ship grounding on New Year’s Eve in 2012 but no discoveries of commercial quantities of oil.

The Trump Administration's draft proposed plan seeks to hold oil and gas lease sales in nearly every Alaska basin, including some that have never had a lease sale before. (BOEM)
The Trump Administration’s draft proposed plan seeks to hold oil and gas lease sales in nearly every Alaska basin, including some that have never had a lease sale before. (BOEM)

But the Trump administration is seeking to revive leasing not only in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, but also a long-abandoned government campaign to encourage oil and gas drilling in the Bering Strait region, the Bering Sea and in areas extending to Gulf of Alaska waters off the state’s southeastern panhandle.
The only Alaska region not included in the Trump five-year plan is the North Aleutian Basin, the Bristol Bay area that has been off-limits to oil development, a status that Obama made permanent in 2014.

The new leasing plan would go into effect in 2019 and run until 2024.

Officials said aggressive offshore oil and gas leasing in the nation’s federal waters would help give the nation “energy dominance,” a slogan often used by the administration.

“Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “Today’s announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period. Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks. The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American energy dominance.”

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” Vincent DeVito, the Interior Department’s counselor for energy policy, said in the statement. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

The plan will be subject to a 60-day public comment period, and a series of public hearings on the plan are set to be held before a final version is released.