Alaska oil advocates urge Obama administration to leave Arctic drilling options open

WASHINGTON — Alaskans who don't want to give up on Arctic offshore oil pressed the outgoing Obama administration this week to leave options open.

The Interior Department released its proposed drilling plan for 2017-2022 earlier this year, including two lease sales, one each in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. But quite a few pro-drilling parties are worried Arctic drilling may face the same fate as in the Atlantic, with lease sales cut in the final plan.

This week a half-dozen Alaskans connected to the oil industry traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge administration officials to keep the Alaska lease sales on the agenda — in the Beaufort in 2020 and Chukchi in 2022.

In the last year, oil companies have pared back exploratory drilling as prices plummeted, particularly in the Arctic, where the cost of doing business is high. Royal Dutch Shell abandoned its seven-year effort to tap the Chukchi, and several other companies have relinquished already held leases in the region.

But it's too early to tell how oil prices might change, and whether there might be a renewed interest in exploration several years from now, said Kevin Durling, president of Petroleum Equipment & Services, who was in Washington this week to meet with Obama administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Durling and others met with several senators and top staffers with the Interior Department, who they said seemed "receptive" to their arguments.

Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to issue a final five-year plan for offshore drilling at the end of the year. Some climate change activists see it as one last chance for President Barack Obama to take a stand against Arctic drilling — a prospect that worries Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.


After the proposed plan surprised some by eliminating all offshore lease sales for the Atlantic Ocean, "we're worried… that Interior now plans to hit the delete button" on Arctic plans, Murkowski said at an Arctic policy forum Wednesday, sponsored by the Arctic Energy Center and Roll Call. "Alaskans don't want to be left out, left hanging," Murkowski said.

The proposed Arctic drilling plan, with just two Arctic lease sales, is a "bare minimum effort, and it's a far cry from the areawide sales that Alaskans have been asking for," Murkowski said.

Gen. Joe Ralston, former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said bringing offshore drilling to the Arctic is a key route to private investment that could bring the U.S. Coast Guard and a deep-water port to the American Arctic.

He and other retired military leaders have urged the administration to keep the lease sales on the table for national security reasons.

"While the Russians, the Norwegians, the Canadians, everybody else is drilling in the Arctic, we need to do that," Ralston said at the policy briefing Wednesday.

Not all Alaskans want offshore Arctic drilling. Recently, tribal residents from Point Lay traveled to Washington and met with Interior officials to register their opposition.

On Wednesday, Leah Donahey of the Alaska Wilderness League said people in Alaska and the Lower 48 are "concerned about future drilling for climate change reasons." And given the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic Ocean, many worry a spill could have devastating consequences and a slow cleanup.

Nevertheless, "I don't think we have confidence that the leases will be removed" from the proposed five-year plan, Donahey said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.