SEATTLE -- Even as the first offshore drilling in the Arctic in nearly two decades is poised to get under way, Obama administration officials said Tuesday they are preparing to open additional areas of the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas exploration.
Such exploration will be part of a "targeted leasing" strategy that will place a few of the most sensitive areas -- including prized wildlife habitat just north of Barrow -- off limits but will allow new leasing in 2016 in the Chukchi Sea and 2017 in the Beaufort Sea.
The full scope of the offshore-leasing program in the Arctic for 2012-17 will not be released for another several days, but U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made it clear that the U.S. plans to expand the march of drilling rigs into the Arctic after Shell's initial exploratory drilling program this summer. Salazar said that program is likely to win final federal approvals soon.
"I do anticipate, having seen the conditions that Shell has already met, that it is probable that they are going to get these permits. I think it's highly likely that the permits will be issued," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters from Norway. He was meeting with officials from other Arctic nations on a coordinated approach to expanding oil production while protecting resources in the remote, sensitive region.
Salazar said the upcoming Outer Continental Shelf leasing program for the Arctic is being drafted under a new approach in which federal managers are identifying specific high-resource, low-conflict areas for leasing. That approach will allow drilling to go forward in areas where there is the most oil but fewest conflicts with wildlife or with species on which Native Alaskans rely for food and clothing.
"We are defining a targeted leasing program with the aim of really focusing for potential leasing ... on areas that have the highest resource potential and that we've endeavored to de-conflict by taking out areas of particular environmental sensitivity, as well as areas that potentially conflict with subsistence use," said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Officials said the following three areas would not be immediately offered for leasing: an existing 25-mile buffer along the Chukchi Sea; an area north of Barrow; and an area known as Hanna Shoal, a part of the Chukchi with an unusually productive concentration of marine life for reasons not completely understood.
Eleanor Huffines, U.S. Arctic program manager for the Pew Environment Group, said the restricted zone north of Barrow most likely will be Barrow Canyon -- well known for ice seals, bowhead whales, beluga and walrus. That area is considered critical not only for the Arctic ecosystem but for Native subsistence hunters.
"It's very encouraging that they recognize there are areas in the Arctic Ocean that are too important to drill," Huffines said in an interview.
Conservationists have generally opposed any expanded drilling in the offshore Arctic because of the area's extreme fragility and the dearth of hard scientific information about how industrial development will affect it.
"We are disappointed that the Obama administration's final 2012-2017 offshore program will include the two new Arctic Ocean lease sales despite the opposition of nearly half a million people (who made public comments) including many who live on America's Arctic coast," said Kristen Miller, government affairs director for the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement.
But U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, echoed most Alaska officials in welcoming the administration's announcement.
"For over three years, my message to the Obama administration is that as America's energy storehouse, Alaska can and should responsibly supply a significant portion of our country's energy needs. Today's announcement about the 2012-2017 leasing program, to be released later this week, shows they're receiving that message," Begich said in a statement.
Last week, the Interior Department held its first sale of oil and gas leases in the central Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with companies submitting $1.74 billion in winning bids on nearly 39 million acres.
"This five-year program will show that we can move confidently -- with comprehensive safety standards in place -- to continue to grow our energy economy at home while protecting the environment and human health," Salazar said at the conference in Norway.
Federal officials also announced that Shell Alaska on Monday completed testing of a newly designed capping stack, of the kind that finally halted the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon. That capping stack is designed to halt a blowout should one occur during drilling in the Arctic.
"I can confirm that it has been tested," Salazar said, though he did not discuss the outcome.
The test, carried out off the coast of Bellingham, Wash., demonstrated that the capping stack could be deployed at a depth of about 150 feet and form a seal sufficient to hold back oil at the pressure that might emerge from an uncontrolled well, Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh told the Los Angeles Times.
"It was successful from our standpoint, in that we deployed it and tested it for integrity, and everything went smoothly," she said.