Interior secretary reaffirms commitment to Alaska drilling

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday defended his agency's reforms in the year following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, saying that he treats criticism of a lengthier and more extensive permitting process as mere "Washington noise."

But the U.S. is committed to offshore oil and gas development done safely, Salazar said. He also agreed with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that oil and gas development in Alaska is unique, and said at a hearing in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that they'll be working to better coordinate the federal permitting process in Alaskan Arctic.

"Alaska, as you and I have often spoken, is a world unto itself," Salazar told Murkowski, the top Republican on the committee. "Realties of the Arctic offshore or on the onshore are realties that require us not to impose some of the same requirements if, say, we were talking about onshore (exploration) in New Mexico."

The plan to streamline permitting, championed by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, got the backing last week of President Barack Obama, who called Saturday in his weekly address for easing the way for more domestic oil and gas production, particularly in the offshore Arctic and National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Both Begich and Murkowski are pushing for increased offshore production in the Arctic as a source of oil that will keep the trans-Alaska pipeline running.

"The past year has been evidence that it is needed now more than ever," Begich told the committee Tuesday morning. "I was glad to hear the president talking about ... the need to coordinate between the many different federal agencies."

Murkowski told Salazar she remains concerned the U.S. is about one-third of the way toward pre-moratorium levels in terms of new exploration and production.

"It should be our goal to ensure our offshore industry is working safely," she said. "But that requires that it be working."

But Salazar pointed out that until a few months ago, he and the director of the new agency that oversees offshore drilling, Michael Bromwich, weren't confident in the well containment systems being developed by oil companies.

When they were confident, they started issuing permits again, Bromwich said. Since then, permits for 14 deepwater wells have been issued. Another 53 were granted in shallow waters since June, Bromwich said.

"We couldn't really grant deepwater permits until there was containment capability," said Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. "That didn't happen until February. The notion that it's taken us a very long time to permit deepwater applications is really not true."

Both men also likened legislation passed by the Republican House to "pulling out the rug" on their post-oil spill regulatory reforms. That legislation, which is being considered by the Senate, shortens the time federal regulators have to consider applications to drill. The House proposal, Salazar said, would "pull out rug from what it is we're trying to do: safe development of oil and gas in America's oceans."

That doesn't mean they can't improve the transparency of the process to keep applicants informed of the status of their permits, Bromwich said.

But oil companies must also recognize that there's a new regulatory regime, Salazar said. Although he told the committee his department has a "good relationship with industry," it "doesn't mean we should be dictated" about standards, a reference to accusations that pre-spill, oil and gas interests were too cozy with the Interior Department's old Minerals Management Service.

"Obviously there's tremendous expertise that we listen to," he said of industry advisory groups. "But at end of day, it's our independent judgment that has to come to bear on these recommendations."