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GOP urges speedier permitting in Alaska oil and gas reserve

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Thursday reiterated its commitment to speeding up lease sales and possible oil production in the vast National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope.

But the announcement from the Interior Department, which followed on the heels of a similar pledge by the president last month, wasn't enough for Alaska's Rep. Don Young and other House Republicans, who also held a hearing Thursday about NPRA prospects.

Led by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who visited NPRA last week and sponsored legislation to speed up permitting in the petroleum reserve, Republicans complained that delays in federal permitting had held up roads, bridges and pipelines needed to transport oil out of the reserve.

"It's unacceptable that the federal government is the obstacle to harnessing this energy -- American energy," Hastings said Thursday, at the House Natural Resources Committee's energy and mineral resources subcommittee. Hastings is the chairman of the full Natural Resources Committee.

But the Bureau of Land Management disagreed, and said Hastings' legislation is unnecessary. Mike Pool, the deputy director of the agency, announced Thursday at the hearing that the agency is calling on the public -- in particular the oil and gas industry -- to recommend certain tracts they'd like to see made available in a lease sale scheduled for December.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nearby state waters and the petroleum reserve -- on Alaska's North Slope, west of Prudhoe Bay -- contain 896 million barrels of oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski also testified at the hearing, saying that the obstacle was not the availability of leases, but the inability of companies to navigate the permitting process in a timely manner.

"We have a permitting problem, not just a leasing problem," Murkowski said. "If every time a leaseholder wants to produce from the NPRA, it requires congressional hearings and years of involvement from this many elected officials, we will not be in much better position next time."

Young singled out a favorite target of House Republicans: the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The EPA is the real snot on the handkerchief," he said at Thursday's hearing.

Both were referring to the hold up in permitting a bridge that would carry oil from NPRA through a pipeline over the Colville River. That bridge, which has encountered permitting problems with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is seen as the key to tapping additional reserves in the reserve.

Both Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Murkowski have spoken with Obama about the NPRA, as well as Shell's efforts to move forward with its plans to drill offshore in the Arctic. Thursday, Begich said he was pleased to see the Obama Administration "making good on its commitment to increasing domestic energy production on public lands, including in Alaska."

"But as I've said in the past, in order for progress to be real in the NPRA, the Obama administration will have to demonstrate a commitment to removing roadblocks that are currently preventing development," Begich said in a statement.

The president's announcement last month called for a new team to coordinate work on Alaska drilling permits -- a move that's expected to streamline projects such as Shell's.

Just one environmental group, the Audubon Society, testified Thursday. Audubon called on the administration to proceed cautiously, particularly around Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok River Uplands.

"Audubon believes that within such a vast landscape it is entirely appropriate that there be a balance of development and conservation," said Eric Myers, the policy director of Audubon Alaska. "Past presidential administrations as philosophically disparate as those of former President Jimmy Carter and former President George W. Bush have embraced the need for protecting these areas."