A visit to two Alaska offshore oil fields and meetings with industry and state representatives has affirmed to the head of the federal offshore leasing agency that oil can be produced safely in federal waters of the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
But how the five-day trip might inform Abigail Ross Hopper's recommendation about another big topic — whether the proposed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management lease sales should be held in the U.S. Arctic Ocean in 2020 and 2022 — Hopper wasn't saying.
Hopper said she'll make that recommendation to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who will make the final call.
"I won't tell you — I will tell her first," Hopper said.
Alaska officials seeking more oil production to help recharge dwindling state savings and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline fear Jewell will strike the lease sale from the final draft of the offshore drilling plan for 2017 to 2022, something many expect to be released by the end of the year. Such a move would further delay industry's hopes of tapping into the potentially oil-rich outer continental shelf.
Hopper's visit did not involve any meetings with conservation groups.
On the agenda Friday was a private meeting with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has repeatedly pressed for the Arctic offshore lease sales to remain in the final plan. In May, Murkowski criticized Hopper for favoring drilling opponents following a statement on Hopper's Twitter account for which she has apologized.
In a quick interview with a reporter on a car ride to that meeting, Hopper said her current trip to Alaska was primarily focused on listening to industry but was "not necessarily a reaction to any Twitter flak."
Hopper said she'll listen to anyone who wants to talk about energy development.
"I have met with the environmental groups as well," she said. "Sometimes they come to Washington, sometimes industry comes to Washington."
The trip was Hopper's sixth to Alaska in 18 months. A visit last spring included stops at several North Slope communities, but this visit was a chance to hear primarily from industry officials, including in Anchorage, she said.
The meetings included representatives of oil producer ConocoPhillips, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association that represents the state's oil industry, and Arctic Inupiat Offshore, a company formed by the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and six Slope village corporations that supports offshore oil development. Hopper also met with Gov. Bill Walker and saw U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, before heading to Alaska, she said.
Hopper said she stayed one night each at two of the man-made gravel islands where oil is produced off Alaska's coasts — Hilcorp's Northstar Island and Eni's Spy Island.
The visits offered insight into how development may proceed at another proposed man-made island, Hilcorp's Liberty project. It would be built in shallow waters 5 miles off the Beaufort Sea coast, and 15 miles east of Prudhoe Bay.
If developed, Liberty would be the first producing oil-field unit located entirely in the federal outer continental shelf off Alaska. Hilcorp estimates it could add up to 70,000 barrels of oil daily to the trans-Alaska pipeline, boosting the 515,000 barrels recently flowing in the pipe.
BOEM is conducting an environmental review of the project and expects to release a draft Environmental Impact Statement next summer, said John Callahan, a spokesman for the agency.
Hopper said she met with passionate workers at both sites and talked to Northstar Island personnel about how Hilcorp had incorporated lessons learned at that gravel island into its Liberty proposal.
"We will obviously do all the environmental evaluation required, but there's a very strong record here in Alaska of building gravel islands safely in an environmentally responsible way, so there's no reason to believe that couldn't happen," she said.