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Begich: Create federal offshore development coordinator

Patti Epler

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich wants to create an offshore development coordinator for Alaska  similar to the federal pipeline coordinator whose job is to shepherd through a major natural gas pipeline.

Begich spoke to the Alaska Legislature Tuesday and announced he would introduce legislation to establish a "federal coordinator for the OCS" that would work across agency lines, bringing together the "agencies causing Alaska so much heartburn today" -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department that has several entities with regulatory oversight of the Outer Continental Shelf.

Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell, among other state leaders, have been harshly critical of the Obama administration and its handling of permits for drilling in the Arctic off Alaska's coast and in federal areas onshore. Shell Oil Co. in particular has been thwarted in its efforts to drill in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas while ConocoPhillips has been stalled on a project onshore in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Many of the hang-ups are the result of lawsuits filed by environmental and Native organizations challenging lease sales or permits that the government has in fact issued. And some of the government action -- or inaction -- pre-dates the Obama administration.

Still, Begich says a federal coordinator would help streamline the federal approval process. And, he said, the concept could be expanded to oversee offshore development in the Lower 48.

The idea would be to create a joint regional lease and permitting office for the Alaska OCS region. Currently, the permits go through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which itself was recently created out of the ashes of the former Minerals Management Service. The old MMS was significantly revamped after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last spring and amid criticism of the agency for lax oversight.

Begich also told lawmakers that federal budget cuts will definitely be felt in Alaska, especially with "an end to the millions of dollars in earmarks Alaskans have benefitted from for decades."

He also said he is cutting his own office budget by 5 percent.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com