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Interior secretary vows to reinvigorate Alaska oil industry

President Donald Trump's interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, drew cheers from some industrial-minded Alaskans on Wednesday when he pledged to pave the way for new development on the North Slope and reinvigorate the state's oil industry.

"The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska," Zinke told the audience at an Anchorage conference hosted by the state's major oil industry group, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke takes questions Tuesday in Anchorage. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young listen at right. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"The president has declared — and thank you Donald J. Trump — that the war on North American energy is now over," Zinke added, equating "energy" and oil.

Flanked by politicians and hard-hat-wearing union members, Zinke signed a secretarial order at the end of his speech aimed at boosting production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and at updating estimates of the amount of oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Alaska politicians welcomed the move, calling it a reversal of Obama-era policies of the past eight years that Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski described as an effort to "close it all off."

"Now, finally, we have an administration that will listen to us — that will work with us to ensure that we can safely produce our resources," Murkowski said.

But some industry players interviewed at the conference were more tempered in their reaction, saying the federal government is limited in the amount of power it can exert over global market forces that have crashed the price of oil, caused thousands of job losses in Alaska and blown a massive hole in the state's budget.

"The market determines what we can pull the trigger on," said Dave Norton, an engineer and co-owner of Anchorage-based Hawk Consultants, which manages oil and gas projects. "Fracking in Texas is so cheap to do, why would anybody want to come up here?"

Zinke is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who said Wednesday that he had spent time on the Aleutian islands of Adak and Shemya. His wife also has Alaska credentials, having once worked at the Lucky Wishbone restaurant, though Zinke did slip up once Wednesday, referring to the North Slope as the "North Shore."

His pledge to make the oil industry great again, at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center downtown at the tail end of a nearly weeklong trip through the state, was his first major public address in Alaska. It came before an enthusiastic audience of state and federal lawmakers, staffers and oil industry executives who had often clashed with the Obama administration and its efforts to fight global warming by limiting the production of Earth-warming greenhouse gases — the byproducts of fossil fuels.

"Our economy's an oil economy," said Anchorage Republican state Rep. Chris Birch, who said the conference was like "going to church on Sunday."

"You get up, you get out kind of refreshed," he said.

Zinke's pledge to revitalize the state's oil industry came as Trump prepared to announce Thursday whether he would abandon the landmark Paris climate deal reached in 2015 under Obama — with initial reports claiming he would.

The Paris agreement calls for the United States to make about one-fifth of the globe's emissions reductions through 2030.

Obama used Alaska as a backdrop for his push for the climate deal, describing global warming as a looming crisis for the state and the world in his own speech in Anchorage in 2015 and declaring that "any so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke is not fit to lead."

Zinke didn't mention global warming in his speech. He told reporters at a news conference afterward that he thinks the climate is changing. But he said he hadn't read the Paris agreement and argued that there's a lot about climate change that's not understood.

"What can we do about it? What is the influence? That is unsettled," he said, contradicting the latest U.N. scientific report that said it's "extremely likely" that human influence has been the dominant cause of warming in the past half-century.

About 20 people protested Zinke's appearance both inside and outside the convention center, with one, Rachel Cella, 40, saying that she wanted to hear more plans to help move the state's economy away from oil.

"Obviously we're not going to just shutter the oil fields," she said while holding a handmade sign that said "there are no jobs on a dead planet." She added: "We need to acknowledge what's happening and acknowledge that we can't bury our heads in the sand anymore and think that the oil industry is coming back in Alaska. They're not accepting change and the reality that this is a shifting planet."

Zinke argued that boosting Alaska energy production would create economic opportunities, and he pointed out that he didn't hear any objections to development at a Tuesday round-table meeting with Alaska Native leaders.

Zinke's new order gives his agency three weeks to create a new schedule for review and revision of an Obama-era plan for the Indiana-sized petroleum reserve, on the North Slope. It also directs his agency to create a plan within three weeks for "updating current assessments of the undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and natural gas resources" on the North Slope, with a focus on the petroleum reserve and the coastal plain of the wildlife refuge.

The Obama administration plan for the petroleum reserve, finished in 2013, made about half of the area unavailable for leasing, in a move that could preclude development of as many as 350 million barrels of oil, according to the order.

While Zinke and Alaska politicians described the Obama administration as hostile to oil development on the North Slope, one former top Interior Department official, David Hayes, said that the existing plan for the petroleum reserve was in part shaped by oil industry interest — or lack of it.

"They turned back many of their leases. So the notion that the Obama administration stood in the way of developing responsible oil and gas on the east side of the NPR-A is belied by the facts," said Hayes, a former deputy interior secretary under Obama who's now a lecturer at Stanford Law School. "The economics are challenging up there for companies. It's much cheaper to get shale oil in North Dakota than it is on the North Slope. It's that simple."

But since the 2013 adoption of the plan, oil industry interest in the petroleum reserve and nearby state land has surged following recent announcements of major discoveries by companies like Repsol, Armstrong and ConocoPhillips. And officials with Gov. Bill Walker's administration now describe the area as red-hot.

"Suddenly, now, we have a body of information that suggests geologically, and based on well results and seismic (testing), that wait a minute, we've been missing something," said Andy Mack, the natural resources commissioner. "Now there are these huge, economic discoveries and it's pretty prolific. It's exciting for Alaska."

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