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Interior Department hears conflicting cries over offshore Arctic drilling

Sunset on the Chukchi Sea in Kotzebue on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

WASHINGTON — Opposing forces are pressing the U.S. Department of the Interior over the Obama administration's latest proposed offshore drilling plan, with each saying the fate of Alaska's Arctic rests in the balance.

The department's proposed offshore drilling plan for 2017 through 2022 made waves with plans to close off drilling prospects in the Atlantic Ocean, and few options for the Arctic. The draft plan would include 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska — one each in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Cook Inlet.

Now the department has a final decision to make, and advocates say the decision could cement the fate of the Arctic, shifting the future direction of drilling there.

Thursday marked the final day for public submissions commenting on the draft plan. No lease sales can be added to the final plan, but the three planned sales could be dropped. In a flurry of public input this week, high-profile figures urged Interior officials to either keep the Arctic sales in place, or drop them altogether.

Arctic drilling advocates have had a difficult stretch recently. The Obama administration closed off portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to drilling. In September, Royal Dutch Shell PLC gave up its $7 billion Arctic exploration effort. And the next month, the federal department canceled the Arctic lease sales planned in the current five-year program, citing low industry interest and poor oil market conditions. More recently, several companies relinquished their Arctic leases.

In one letter, 16 high-ranking military veterans pointed to the strategic significance of the Arctic, urging the Obama administration to consider the region's security needs and how private infrastructure investments could aid the White House, Defense Department and Coast Guard in terms of "cost, resources and expertise."

"Keeping the Arctic in the program maintains our options; exclusion irreversibly eliminates them," they wrote. The letter included signatures from former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Ralston and several former heads of the Alaskan Command.

That echoes what Alaska's congressional delegation said last month, as they urged the administration to keep the three lease sales in the program. "A renewed emphasis on offshore leasing can and must serve as the first step towards a workable regulatory regime for the Alaska OCS (outer continental shelf," they wrote in a letter.

New sources of oil in northern Alaska are "vital to the continued safe operation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System," which they note is currently operating "at far less than half of its capacity."

Getting oil into the pipeline is critical to the future and health of Alaska's economy, according to a coalition of Alaska organizations that wrote to Interior officials Thursday, including AFL-CIO Alaska, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and other pro-development organizations.

"Our state's oil fields have matured over the years, and it is vital that new arenas and development opportunities are realized for the future economic security of our state," the letter said.

Others, meanwhile, argued it's as good a time as any to put an end to the prospects for Arctic drilling. Interior staff heard from lawmakers, Alaskans and, in one letter, nearly 400 scientists — including 25 current or retired University of Alaska professors — all pushing the administration to abandon its Arctic lease plans.

Nearly 90 congressmen asked the administration to drop the two Arctic lease sales from the draft plan as a statement on climate change. If viable, Arctic Ocean drilling would lock the U.S. into additional "carbon pollution for decades," they wrote. But canceling Arctic lease sales "would send a powerful international signal that the United States is committed to investing its resources in a climate safe, clean-energy future."

In addition to climate change concerns, the lawmakers said Arctic drilling "would also put our marine ecosystems and ocean-reliant communities at risk of a major oil spill." They said the draft plan allowing Arctic leases represents "a tacit endorsement of unacceptable levels of irreversible habitat destruction."

The department has heard similar arguments from Native residents of the Arctic, who say Native corporations don't represent their views.

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