WASHINGTON (CN) - The Obama administration's recent actions regarding offshore energy development in Arctic waters drew criticism and a vow to fight back from Alaska's republican leaders. The inflamed rhetoric issuing from both Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Bill Walker came in response to a Presidential memorandum and the Department of Interior's draft Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Lease Plan for 2017-2022, both published this week.
Citing the need to ensure these areas remain available for future generations, the President used his executive power to take specific OCS areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the table for oil or gas leasing for "a time period without specific expiration," according to his action on Tuesday. This action builds on the President's action taken in December to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay.
Touting its "regionally-tailored plan," the Department of Interior's draft oil and gas lease plan would purportedly make "nearly 80 percent of estimated undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources" on the U.S. OCS available, while protecting sensitive resources, according to the agency's statement on Wednesday. Of the 14 potential lease sales, 10 are in the Gulf of Mexico, three are off the coast of Alaska, and one is off the mid-Atlantic coast. "The draft proposal prioritizes development in the Gulf of Mexico, which is rich in resources and has well-established infrastructure to support offshore oil and gas programs," DOI Secretary Sally Jewell said. The draft plan proposes one sale each in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and the Cook Inlet areas.
Four of the five areas President Obama withdrew in Alaskan waters were excluded from the current five-year leasing program, and three of the five areas were also excluded by the prior administration. The withdrawal also includes the Hanna Shoal area in the Chukchi Sea, which was not previously excluded. These biologically rich areas are home to the iconic polar bear, and considered to be of critical importance to many marine species, including endangered whales, Pacific walruses, bearded seals and more than 40 species of fish.
Alaska's Republican leaders do not share this perspective. "This administration is determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska's federal areas, and this offshore plan is yet another example of their short-sighted thinking," Murkowski, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in her response statement. "This administration is once again promising Alaskans that it will allow exploration sometime in the future, but not right now. Promises will not fill the trans-Alaska pipeline."
A statement issued by Governor Walker's office indicated that the state's republican leadership aligned with her views. "This outrageous action confirms what most Alaskans have feared, that the Obama Administration's war against Alaska families and the middle class would only intensify under the final two years of President Obama's tenure. But Alaskans have been in tough battles before. It is just one more example of President Obama thumbing his nose at the citizens of a sovereign state, and will put Alaska and America's energy security in serious jeopardy," Senator Sullivan was quoted as saying in Governor Walker's response statement. "I stand united with Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young, Governor Walker and the members of the Alaska State Legislature to vigilantly safeguard and defend our fellow Alaskans' interests, and I pledge to do everything in my power to fight back against this assault on Alaska's economic future," he said.
Governor Walker was "outraged" that these actions have come as the state is drawing from its savings due to low oil prices and declining production. He vowed to "consider accelerating options" to increase oil production on state-owned lands.
The Alaska Wilderness League (AWL), by contrast, was happy with the twin actions. "This has truly been a historic week for the Arctic and our nation's public lands. President Obama is leaving quite a legacy in the Arctic," Cindy Shogan, AWL's Executive Director, was quoted as saying in the group's press release. "Our work is not done, however. Shell's past failures and DOI's own recent analysis of a 75 percent chance that a large oil spill could occur if leases were developed in the Chukchi Sea give the Obama administration ample reason to reject Shell exploration in 2015 and take all Arctic leasing off the table."
Comments on the draft leasing plan are due March 30.
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