Interior secretary to visit Alaska

LEASE SALES: Salazar seeks comments on offshore oil, gas development.

April 11, 2009 

Alaska's biggest landlord is coming to visit this week and the state's residents will get a chance to tell him whether oil and gas development in federal waters off Alaska's coast is a good or bad idea.

Ken Salazar, the new U.S. Interior Secretary, plans to visit Alaska on Monday and Tuesday to gather opinions about the federal government's proposed oil and gas lease sales in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and the Bristol Bay region. That input will be included in the Obama administration's offshore energy plan, scheduled for completion in six months.

Advocacy groups for and against drilling in federal waters are pulling out all the stops to snag Salazar's attention during an all-day public hearing scheduled Tuesday in downtown Anchorage. Salazar is hosting a similar meeting Monday in Dillingham, where several groups say they plan to ask him to reverse a Bush administration decision to allow mining claims on federal land downstream of the massive copper and gold Pebble prospect.

Salazar holds huge sway over Alaska, as his department controls most of the land in the state. It oversees national parks and wilderness. It sells oil and gas leases on the North Slope. It helps regulate subsistence fishing and hunting. Its Bureau of Indian Affairs is concerned with the welfare of Alaska Natives.

So far, the new Interior secretary hasn't taken a stance on Alaska's proposed lease sales, but he has said that President Obama's energy plan will emphasize renewable energy and include new oil and gas development in certain coastal areas.

The department's Minerals Management Service handles oil and gas leasing in federal waters off Alaska's coast. The MMS estimates Alaska's offshore energy basins might hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas: much more fossil fuel than has ever been produced from land on the North Slope. But many tribal governments oppose drilling because they fear potential damage to lucrative commercial fisheries in the Bristol Bay region and subsistence hunts in Arctic waters.

Before Salazar addresses the Anchorage crowd at 9 a.m. Tuesday, oil industry boosters plan a "March 4 Jobs" parade from Town Square Park to the Dena'ina Convention Center, where the hearing will be held. Conservationists opposed to the lease sales are throwing a "Wild Oceans Cookout" at the park during a lunch break.

Politicians -- including Gov. Sarah Palin and all or most of the Alaska congressional delegation -- plan to testify. So will Native leaders, such as Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a Nuiqsuit resident and board member of Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a coalition of eight North Slope tribal governments, including Barrow's.

"We are the ones dealing with (oil development) on a daily basis," said Ahtuangaruak, who recently traveled with other Native tribal leaders to Washington, D.C., to lobby Salazar against drilling in the Beaufort. Based on that meeting, she said she's optimistic that Salazar will have a respectful relationship with tribal leaders and make "good decisions."

Oil and gas companies, on the other hand, have made it clear that they are interested in offshore drilling in Alaska; industry officials say offshore development could help fuel Alaska's economy for generations without serious harm to the environment.

The leasing would generate thousands of jobs in Alaska, which is reeling from the layoffs of hundreds of oil field workers and other specialists in recent months, according to the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, an Anchorage-based trade association of oil, gas and mining companies and their contractors.

Salazar wants Alaskans to weigh in on a proposed national leasing program spanning the next five years, including nine Alaska lease sales in four locations: lower Cook Inlet; federal waters outside Bristol Bay; and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The program was announced by the Bush administration just a few days before Obama took office.

After his appointment, Salazar lengthened the public comment period for the leasing program until September.

He wants "open and honest" conversations around the country to help develop a national energy plan, said Kendra Barkoff, a Department of Interior spokesman said last week.

"Obviously, Alaska is extremely important to the secretary," she said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.

Proposed off-shore lease sales

Beaufort Sea Proposal: Two lease sales, in 2013 and 2015.

Exploration history: 246 active leases; 31 exploratory wells drilled.

Production: 23 million barrels of oil. Interest: Four companies have expressed interest; Palin supports it but many local governments oppose it.

Estimated resource: 8 billion barrels of oil; 28 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Chukchi Sea Proposal: Three lease sales, in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Exploration history: 5 wells drilled before 1992, all plugged and abandoned; a 2008 lease sale netted $2.8 billion in federal revenue but local governments, whalers and environmentalists filed suit and have blocked development so far.

Production: None.

Interest: Four companies have expressed interest; Palin supports it but a coalition of North Slope groups are suing to block recent leases in the region.

Estimated resource: 15 billion barrels of oil; 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Bristol Bay Proposal: One lease sale in 2011.

Exploration history: No wells drilled; previous leases were abandoned due to litigation in the 1980s and 1990s; the area was off limits to exploration from 1998 to 2007.

Production: None.

Interest: Three oil and gas companies have expressed interest; Palin and the Bristol Bay Native Corp. support the lease sale, but local governments in the region have conflicting opinions about it.

Estimated resource: 750 million barrels of oil; 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Cook Inlet Proposal: Two lease sales in 2011 and 2015.

Exploration history: Five previous sales in federal waters, but the most recent one resulted in no bids; there two active leases in the area.

Production: N/A. (Lots of production from state leases in Upper Cook Inlet.)

Interest: Three oil and gas companies expressed interest; Palin supports it; and conservations oppose it.

Estimated resource: 1 billion barrels of oil and 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Public hearing

WHAT: The U.S. Department of Interior is taking public comments from Alaskans on potential off-shore oil and gas development.



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