The Trump administration moved Thursday to reopen vast territory in the Arctic Ocean and other U.S. waters to drilling by oil companies, launching a draft plan that could lead to a giant rollback of steps taken by the Obama administration.
The five-year proposed program for federal offshore waters, starting in 2019, calls for 19 of 47 lease sales to be offered off Alaska coasts over five years. The first lease sales under the program would be in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
The administration proposed three lease sales each in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, two in Cook Inlet, and one each in 11 other areas in Alaska.
No sales are proposed in the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, which includes Bristol Bay and has been under presidential withdrawal since December 2014, the Interior Department said.
First details of the plan were provided during a press briefing held for reporters early Thursday — "Energy Dominance" was the dial-in pass code, reflecting a goal of the Trump administration.
The number of proposed lease sales off Alaska's coast is a sharp departure from the past. Only one federal offshore lease sale has been held in Alaska since 2008. Last year, federal tracts were sold for potential oil development in a section of Cook Inlet.
The new draft plan would slap down Obama-era decisions that had designated nearly all of the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling and had halted plans for a future lease sale there.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters Thursday the five-year draft proposes the largest number of lease sales ever for U.S. waters. Twenty-five of 26 planning areas in U.S. waters are proposed for leasing in the plan, with the northern Aleutian basin the exception, he said.
Marine sanctuaries will also be off limits.
The publication of the plan launches a 60-day comment period.
Zinke cautioned that officials will closely listen to local residents, state officials and other stakeholders on what areas should be part of a final leasing plan.
Zinke said President Barack Obama removed 94 percent of the acreage that had been available for offshore leasing.
The plan proposes restoring the same amount, Zinke said.
Kate MacGregor, a deputy assistant secretary in Interior, said in the press call that the administration will work closely with Alaska Natives, North Slope whalers and subsistence hunters to ensure a balanced approach.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the effort "good news" as the state seeks to improve its economy.
She said the draft program's "blank-slate approach" will launch a discussion with local residents on where "responsible development" should occur.
"While nothing in this proposal is final, it is good to see the administration seeking to expand access in places like Alaska, rather than limiting our opportunities," she said.
Gov. Bill Walker said his office looks forward to talking with the administration to "ensure that any offshore development takes into account environmental and safety concerns, and robust input from community residents who live, work, and subsist" in the proposed lease areas.
D.J. Fauske, director of government and external affairs for the North Slope Borough, said the borough's primary concerns include the sensitive Hanna Shoal area in the Chukchi Sea, as well as multiple whaling and subsistence-use areas in the region.
In the past, the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation requested that some or all of these areas be considered for protection, he said.
"We support safe and responsible development but are still reviewing all the details," he said.
Conservation groups fiercely condemned the plan for widespread drilling Thursday.
Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said the proposal is part of the administration's plan to "sell out" public lands and waters everywhere.
Epstein called the plan a "wholesale assault on Alaska's Arctic" that includes the administration's recent efforts to open new federal lands to drilling in Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain.
In 2015 and 2016, Obama removed 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from future oil and gas activity, an effort his administration said was meant to protect the unique ecosystem and sensitive marine habitat. He left open a relatively small stretch of water off northeast Alaska.
Epstein said groups are in court fighting Trump's steps to reopen the region to drilling.
"Numerous conservation groups have sued the Trump administration, questioning its authority to undo President Obama's 2016 withdrawal of much of the Arctic Ocean from America's offshore drilling program," she said. "Ultimately, this issue must be settled by the courts."
Industry groups hailed the decision.
Leasing and drilling in new areas would promote economic development and hundreds of thousands of new jobs, said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research.
"The positive effect for industry, our economy, and families across this country could be monumental," he said.
In addition to the Arctic, the plan calls for multiple lease sales in the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic, where a lease sale has not been held since 1983.
It also calls for meetings across the country starting Jan. 16, but only one in each of the 23 affected states. The one in Alaska is scheduled for Anchorage on Jan. 23.
Zinke said the agency is preparing a draft environmental impact statement about the five-year program, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The process to finalize lease sales will take months, with additional public comment as plans are refined, he said.
"This is a start on looking at American energy dominance and looking at offshore assets and beginning a dialogue" of when and how quickly those should be developed, Zinke said.