Forecast Cloudy for Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling

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By Alan Kovski

June 29 — The prospects for more oil and gas lease sales in U.S. Arctic waters look precarious, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said June 29.

“We're worried,” Murkowski said at a forum in the nation's capital. “We are worried that Interior now plans to hit the delete button on both the Beaufort and the Chukchi sales, even though such a decision would have serious consequences for the North Slope communities, for the state of Alaska and, I believe, for the rest of the country.”

Interior Department officials haven't given away their intentions for the final rule on Outer Continental Shelf leasing for 2017–2022 during discussions with representatives of industry or Alaska state and local officials, attendees at the forum said. Some of the Alaskans had just met the previous day with officials of Interior's offshore leasing agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

They are acutely aware, as Murkowski noted, that in shaping the proposed program, BOEM eliminated a tentative plan to offer a lease sale in the Atlantic in 2022.

“We've already seen what Interior has done with the Atlantic OCS, removed from consideration in the next five-year plan despite strong support from residents and elected officials,” the senator said.

Opposition Speaks Up

The proposed program for 2017-2022 includes one lease sale in the Beaufort Sea in 2020 and one in the Chukchi Sea in 2022—the bare minimum, Murkowski called it. The program is expected to reach final form late this year, she said.

Leah Donahey, a senior campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League, told the forum she would prefer to see the Arctic offshore leasing plans dropped, but she didn't suggest her group knows what Interior will do. “I don't think we have confidence that the leases will be removed,” Donahey said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also expressed opposition to the leases. He criticized oil and gas drilling in general and Arctic offshore drilling in particular—his position based overwhelmingly on concerns about climate change—though he also noted the potential for oil spills and other impacts.

Democrats Favor Drilling Halt

Merkley expressed that the Democratic Party would continue to move in the direction of a “keep it in the ground” policy on hydrocarbons. He didn't see Republicans showing signs of surrender on that point, however, and he suggested that was partly because of the influence of Koch brothers' money on senators.

“They really are the puppet master for the U.S. Senate at this point,” Merkley said of the Kochs, who favor conservative Republicans.

Their latest meeting with Interior officials allowed the Alaskans to make their case for the value of offshore oil and gas development to the lives of the state's citizens.

The case was articulated at the forum not only in terms of direct job benefits but economic ripple effects creating other opportunities and the indirect benefits of better public health financed by better jobs and revenues.

Support Varies for Atlantic Leasing

When Interior announced in March that it would remove the Atlantic leasing plan from the 2017–2022 program, one reason given was the opposition of communities along the southeastern U.S. coastline. In Alaska, public support for offshore oil and gas work, and the revenues it produces, is far higher—it reached 73 percent in a 2014 survey.

The June 29 forum on Arctic offshore energy was hosted by the Capitol Hill news organization Roll Call and sponsored by the Arctic Energy Center, a group backed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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