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Murkowski: Obama administration 'committed' to Alaska oil development

Patti Epler

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski just spent hours on a plane with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and says she thinks the Obama administration is coming around on oil development in Alaska.

Murkowski says she's convinced the federal government is close to approving permits for ConocoPhillips' stalled drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, often referred to as the CD-5 project.

Shell's applications to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas next summer are "a little more complicated," Murkowski says. But she thinks those are likely to be approved soon as well.

Murkowski flew from Washington, D.C., to Greenland with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The trio attended the just-ended Arctic Council conference in Nuuk.

En route, Murkowski says, she discussed a number of Alaska resource development issues with Salazar, including Shell, the CD-5 project, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Lands policy.

She said she didn’t know when the CD-5 and Shell permits might be issued, but Salazar himself is "very engaged," she said.

"The focus they have placed on this gives me a level of assurance that they are committed to finding a path forward," Murkowski said.

In recent months, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young have been urging the White House to move more quickly on Alaska oil development, particularly in light of political unrest in the Middle East that has caused gasoline prices to spike and underscored U.S. dependence on unstable foreign oil supplies.

Murkowski met with President Obama earlier this year to discuss how Alaska could play a larger role in domestic energy production.

On Friday, speaking to Alaska reporters about the Arctic Council and other issues, Murkowski said she's "seeing a change in position" on the part of the federal government in its attitude toward domestic drilling,
in Alaska as well as other offshore areas.

"I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing," she said.

Murkowski is the first U.S. senator to attend an Arctic council meeting as a full participant and noted that the U.S. participation has been elevated to unprecedented levels with Clinton's and Salazar's attendance.

In addition to agreeing to cooperate in search-and-rescue operations with the seven other nations in the Arctic Council, the U.S. also agreed to begin negotiations on joint oil spill preparedness and response
capabilities. Murkowski said she thinks it will take the task force working on the issue two more years -- until the next Arctic Council meeting -- to come up with a plan.

She conceded that the U.S. lacks adequate resources in the Arctic for search-and-rescue as well as oil spill cleanup. Yet activity is increasing and there is a need for everything from deepwater ports to
icebreakers, she said.

"We're going to have to commit to some resources in the North," Murkowski said, adding: "We are stepping up to our role as a leader in the Arctic."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.