ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A five-year offshore leasing plan to be announced later this week will include targeted Arctic waters off Alaska's northern coast, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday.
Future Arctic lease sales will focus on areas that have high petroleum potential but low conflict with environmental resources or Alaska Native village subsistence users, Salazar said. Speaking from Trondheim, Norway, Salazar said by teleconference that the federal government will shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to strategic planning with the hope of reducing drilling delays and litigation.
"You can call this targeted leasing," he said. "It means we are aggregating what we know and identifying areas best suited for exploration and development based on the latest information."
Drilling in Arctic waters is bitterly opposed by environmental groups and some Alaska Natives. Their lawsuits and permit appeals have prevented Shell Oil from drilling in the Chukchi Sea, where the oil giant spent $2.1 billion on leases in 2008. Shell also holds older leases in the Beaufort Sea and hopes to drill exploratory wells this summer in both locations.
Salazar confirmed that Monday in Puget Sound, Wash., Shell successfully tested a capping stack that could be lowered to stop a spill from a well blowout in Arctic waters. If Shell clears other thresholds, he expects the company to drill during the 2012 open water season under standards developed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement after the Deepwater Horizon blowout two years ago.
"I anticipate those permits will be granted if Shell can meet the final conditions that are set forth by BSEE in their requirements," he said. "If Shell meets our standards and passes our inspections, exploration activities will be conducted under the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards ever implemented in the history of the United States."
The five-year offshore leasing plan will include potential lease sales in the Chukchi Sea in 2016 and the Beaufort Sea in 2017, he said. Until then, federal regulators will accumulate additional information to balance energy potential with safety and environmental considerations, Salazar said.
"Our goal is to maximize the availability of oil and gas resources in those areas that we are making available for leasing while minimizing conflict with potentially environmentally sensitive areas and Native Alaska communities that rely on the ocean for subsistence use."
The lease plans also will set aside areas important for wildlife or native subsistence, including a 25-mile-wide buffer along the Chukchi Sea coast because of its importance to subsistence hunters.
Marilyn Heiman, Arctic program director for Pew Environment Group, said her group is disappointed that Arctic waters will be included in the lease plan, but she's encouraged that there will be a time lag to collect information from affected communities.
She also applauded setting aside sensitive areas. One, she said, might be Hanna Shoal northwest of Barrow, which diverts warm water flowing north from the Bering Sea and leaves a pocket of colder water into the summer season. Sea ice stays in the area late in the summer, she said, providing a platform for ice-dependent wildlife such as walrus.
Mike LeVine, an attorney for Oceana, said the Interior Department continues to take small steps forward but bigger ones backward. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should be congratulated for allowing time to gather science and develop targeted lease sales, he said, and for identifying and protecting important ecological areas. That progress, he said, does not excuse the poor decision to affirm earlier lease sales or approve exploratory drilling.
"We lack the basic science to make good decisions in the Arctic," he said. "There is no reason to schedule lease sales in the Beaufort and the Chukchi and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should not have done that."
Likewise, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement should not have approved Shell's response plan, he said.
"There has been no demonstration that the response technologies that Shell proposes might work in Arctic conditions, especially in the presence of ice," he said.
Shell's approved response plan calls for more than a dozen vessels accompanying two drilling ships. Besides the capping stack, skimmers and boom would be on board other vessels and the flotilla would include a tanker to hold captured crude oil.