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Environmental groups bristle at feds collecting information on drilling in the Beaufort Sea

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration advanced an effort to expand oil and gas drilling in the Beaufort Sea this week, riling environmentalists.

The Interior Department is already facing lawsuits over its decision to revoke an Obama administration ban on drilling in Arctic and Atlantic oceans, and is in the process of re-crafting its five year drilling plan, undoing the Obama administration's decision to permanently halt drilling in nearly all of the Beaufort Sea.

But they don't want to wait too long to gather new information on Alaska's offshore waters. On Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will publish a call for information.

They are asking the drilling industry for information on "the areas proposed for leasing, including nominations or indications of interest in specific lease blocks within the area. BOEM also seeks comment from any interested party relating to particular geological, environmental, biological, archaeological and socioeconomic conditions, use conflicts, or other information that could affect the potential leasing and development of particular areas," the agency said in a statement. BOEM is taking information until April 30.

"Available information indicates that the Beaufort Sea possesses great oil and gas potential," said Dr. James Kendall, director of BOEM's Alaska Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Region. "It also contains unique, environmentally sensitive areas important to the subsistence needs of the region's Alaska Native communities. This process will help us identify not only the areas that can be safely and responsibly developed, but also those areas that should be protected for wildlife and traditional uses."

BOEM was sure to note: There is not a final OCS plan for 2019-2024 yet, and the "call does not mean that a final decision has been made to hold the Beaufort Sea sales," the agency said.

But environmental groups said that the agency is jumping the gun, deciding the outcome of the re-worked leasing plan before the public process has played out.

"Planning for a Beaufort lease sale this early in the process of crafting Trump's five year plan is a clear sign that the decision to include the Arctic has already been made," a coalition of environmental groups said in a joint statement. The groups include the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.

They charged that the "Beaufort sale is about giving a win to the Alaska (congressional) delegation by starting the process to fast-track getting leases into the hands of the oil industry without full, fair and open debate."

"There is no compelling reason to rush to sell leases in the Beaufort Sea," said Michael LeVine, senior Arctic fellow for the Ocean Conservancy. "Companies have walked away from investments there, and new leasing threatens a unique and important ocean ecosystem," he said. "BOEM is putting the cart before the horse by moving toward leasing before finishing a plan."

"A great deal of advance planning is required to conduct a lease sale," said BOEM regional spokesman John Callahan. The agency has proposed holding a lease sale in 2019, so staff has started the "pre-sale process," he said. "The fact that BOEM staff have initiated this process absolutely does not mean a decision has been made as to whether or not to hold that sale."

"There is nothing unusual about this course of action," Callahan added. "Any sale that is listed in the first year of any proposed five-year program is going to need to have the groundwork laid before the final program is approved."