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Salazar: Balance Arctic development and protection

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that the federal government will continue to move forward toward offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic, while ensuring protection of the fragile Arctic environment.

His comments at a news conference in Anchorage yesterday came at the end of Salazar's third trip to Alaska, with stops in Kodiak, Anchorage, North Slope oilfields, Barrow and Denali National Park, with much emphasis on oilfield development permits.

"There is no doubt that we are all concerned that TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System) is declining at the rate of 6 percent a year," Salazar said. "The question then becomes how do we find a way to produce additional oil to help deal with the decline."

Along with finding environmentally safe ways for additional oil and gas development both onshore and offshore, Salazar said he sees huge opportunities for development of renewable energy resources, the wind, the sun and geothermal, in ways not done before.

It's up to the Alaska Legislature to come up with the right incentives for more onshore oil and gas development on state lands, while federal agencies would work to develop the potential for the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and the Colville Delta 5 project, which would be the first permanent road infrastructure in the Colville Delta within the NPRA, and Shell Oil's proposed exploration activities for the Beaufort Sea.

As for proposed offshore drilling, "we are looking at the potential of knowing and understanding what is there, and then moving forward in a way that is thoughtful, that makes sure that we are developing additional information about what the oil and gas resources are in those seas, but also moving forward in a way that insures that we are going to protect the fragile environment," he said.

Conservation organizations have expressed much concern over the potential for oil spills in the arctic, in exploration and development, and with sea traffic, before adequate spill prevention and response measures are in place. Even then, some have said, harsh arctic conditions in some cases would never allow for adequate clean-up. Salazar said many lessons had been learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and that they would be applied in any future such Arctic development.

Salazar said he has also been impressed with the potential for renewable energy resources in Alaska and across the country, harnessing "the power of the wind, the sun and geothermal in ways that we haven't done before.

"Even at Denali National Park today where we saw some of the renewable energy resources that are now being used in the park,"" he said. There is a huge opportunity here."

Salazar said he planned to work with the federal Energy Department and other agencies to help in the development of renewable energy resources.

On Aug. 10, his itinerary included a visit to the North Slope for an update on energy exploration and development projects, a stop at Barrow's new Indian Health Service hospital, and then south to Denali National Park.

Salazar was accompanied earlier by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and on this leg of his trip by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Jack Reed, D- RI, and Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes.

On Aug. 9 the four had an aerial tour of the Beaufort and Chukchi sea coast to observe current and proposed oil and gas production sites, including the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. Following the aerial tour, the delegation received updates on Conoco-Philips' proposed Colville Delta-5 project, which would be the first permanent road infrastructure in the Colville Delta within the NPRA, and Shell's proposed exploration activities for the Beaufort Sea.

Salazar said the trip has been an invaluable opportunity to see and hear first-hand about the opportunities and challenges that come with energy development in Alaska. He said he is confident that, guided by science, innovation and the voices of Alaska Natives and local communities, that Alaska's energy potential can be safely harnessed, while protecting the land, water and wildlife for future generations.

The group also visited an Indian Health Services funded hospital under construction in Barrow and were briefed on efforts to address challenges in delivery of quality health care to remote locations. The two-story hospital will include 10 in-patient beds, 15 out-patient exam rooms, 10 dental operatories and provide service to some 5,200 residents of Alaska's North Slope.

At Denali National Park, the delegation met with officials to discuss public access issues, youth mployment opportunities and sustainable energy opportunities in remote sections of the park.

Salazar noted that with visitor numbers steadily increasing, Denali continues to be one of Alaska's most popular tourist attractions and a strong economic engine for the state.