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Alaska's Begich proposes Arctic offshore oil drilling coordinator

Patti Epler

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich on Monday rolled out his proposal for a federal offshore oil coordinator to work with permitting agencies on streamlining development.

The legislation was introduced in Congress last week, and Begich had floated the idea in a speech to the Legislature a few weeks ago. But on Monday he was flanked by oil company executives and oil industry support groups who back the idea as a way to get the federal government moving on Arctic development.

Begich said the legislation would streamline a "cumbersome and in effective development process."

"The problem is the system we have now just isn't working," he said. "It's time to change it."

Begich envisions the new position to be much like the federal coordinator for the proposed natural gas line project, legislation that was pushed through by the late Sen. Ted Stevens. The legislation would establish a regional joint outer Continental Shelf lease and permitting office for both the Atlantic region and the Pacific region. Federal agencies that deal with any aspect of offshore development would assign a staffer to work with the coordinator. The agency would have budget of $2 million a year beginning in fiscal year 2011.

The legislation also includes a sectioned aimed at fast-tracking any lawsuits that might be filed in connection with development. It gives the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia  jurisdiction over any action relating to the Environmental Protection Agency or Interior Department and requires that claims be made within 60 days of the permitting action or lease sale. Cases would be given expedited appeal.

"We will not prevent anyone from litigating as they see fit, but at the end of the day we need to move it forward and again have a predictable timetable," Begich said. "So then investment can occur or not based on those results of the court but not this prolonged forever waiting for someone to decide and then another lawsuit at another level to just delay these projects that are critical for Alaska, for Alaska jobs, for our energy supply for this country."

Shell Alaska president Pete Slaiby told reporters the legislation could go a long way to addressing some of the regulatory issues his company has faced as it's tried to secure federal permits to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Shell still needs a number of permits before it can move forward with a planned exploration well in the Beaufort Sea, which it hopes to begin in 2012.

Slaiby said the combination of a federal coordinator and expedited judicial review would "bring much accountability to the regulator process."

Conoco Phillips vice president of exploration, Geoff Haddad, also applauded the legislation, saying his company his seeking permits for an exploration well in the Chukchi Sea in 2013. He said it is unlikely Conoco can stay on target without some sort of program like Begich is proposing.

The legislation also would require to cooperation of the governors of states with OCS issues, including Alaska. In recent weeks, the Alaska Legislature and Gov. Sean Parnell have been struggling to agree on the state's own coastal zone management program, which is part of a federal coastal resource program.

Begich and Slaiby, who has been working closely with the North Slope Borough on the company's efforts to explore off its coast, said the federal coordinator position should fit in with any state coastal management program and not supercede it.

A narrowly reached compromise bill still pending legislative approval would set up a nine-member coastal policy board to help oversee plans and disputes over development in coastal communities. Federal agencies also would have to abide by the state's consistency determinations on siting of facilities and other issues. Parnell initially blocked any expansion of the program beyond the state having virtually total control because he didn’t want local communities to have veto power over projects of statewide significance, primarily oil and gas development and large mining projects.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com