WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on federal agencies to better coordinate Alaska oil and gas permitting and other regulatory oversight as the industry looks to expand operations in the Arctic and as environmentalists ramp up their opposition.
The White House said a new federal working group, which will be overseen by deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, is designed to simplify oil and gas decision-making in Alaska by bringing together federal agencies to collaborate as they evaluate permits and environmental reviews.
Its formation comes partly in response to criticism about delays in federal air quality and construction permits both onshore and offshore in the Arctic.
"Time will tell if this working group helps streamline and expedite the process, as I hope it will, or if it adds another level of bureaucracy and red tape," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "In the meantime, I commend the president for taking a positive step in the right direction."
The working group also comes as a coalition of 19 environmental groups announced plans this week to uniformly oppose offshore drilling in the Arctic. The coalition -- including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Greenpeace and the Ocean Conservancy - said the federal government should avoid approving drilling plans until oil companies can prove they have effective cleanup plans for spills in Arctic waters.
Yet some of the organizations in the environmental coalition on Tuesday hailed the new working group, saying it was an opportunity to let science, safety, and other considerations guide the decision-making process in the Arctic.
"The Arctic is a complex and fragile system," said Andrew Hartsig, the Arctic program director at the Ocean Conservancy. "The bottom line is that we still have the opportunity to do things right in Arctic waters, but only if we take the time to understand this extraordinary and fragile part of our national and natural heritage. At stake are a unique and exceptionally productive ecosystem and the subsistence way of life in Arctic coastal communities."
Hayes on Tuesday cautioned that the working group won't be a "one-stop shop" for permits.
It's designed to ensure that decisions are made with oil spill prevention, preparedness and response in mind as they develop the necessary infrastructure to adequately support energy development in the Arctic, Hayes said Tuesday at an event about Arctic oil and gas development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
A key part of safe and responsible development of oil and gas resources is "recognizing that different environments and communities require different approaches and technologies," Hayes said
"This is particularly true when it comes to Alaska, whose natural resources offer significant promise for energy development, while posing challenges associated with the conditions of Arctic environments," he wrote. "Its heritage is rich and diverse, and development must take into account the cultural, economic, and subsistence needs of different communities."
Obama's executive order comes two months after he announced during one of his weekly addresses that he'll ease the way for more domestic oil and gas production, particularly in the Arctic and National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where he directed the Interior Department to conduct annual lease sales.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called it a "positive step forward in improving the federal permitting process for companies interested in investing in Alaska."
"I will be watching this effort closely to ensure that it's successful at closing what has been an endless loop of approvals, appeals and delays -- delays caused by special interest groups opposed to improving our energy security and the jobs it would create," she said.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, warned that although he appreciated Obama's "personal attention to these issues," "it doesn't mean exploration and development will occur tomorrow."
"The administration now needs to do the work required to speed and streamline permitting in Alaska," he said. "They can be certain that I'll be following the group very closely. If the work isn't getting done, I'll let them know about it."
The president's proposal, a response in part to voter frustration over high gasoline prices, also addressed oil executives' criticism of the White House's domestic drilling policies. It extended drilling leases in areas of the Gulf of Mexico that were affected by a moratorium -- now lifted -- that took effect after the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Criticism in Alaska of the administration's energy policies has been focused on delays in two projects: air quality permits that have held up Shell's exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea, as well as a dispute with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that has delayed construction onshore of a bridge in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
State officials and the Alaska congressional delegation have met with the White House about accelerating exploration in the Arctic. So has Shell. Gov. Sean Parnell also has been active in a coalition of governors pressing the federal government to more actively pursue offshore drilling in the outer continental shelf.
The working group will be overseen by the Interior Department and will include representatives from the departments of Defense, Commerce Agriculture, Energy, Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects.
They'll be talking regularly about schedules and progress as well as sharing application project information, scientific and environmental data, and cultural and traditional knowledge, Hayes wrote Tuesday on the White House blog.
By ERIKA BOLSTAD