While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Obama pledge stronger efforts to combat climate change in the Arctic, the US government remains undecided on whether to leave the Arctic Ocean open for drilling or not.
Two weeks ago US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced plans for the 2017-2022 program for offshore oil and gas leasing in the US outer continental shelf. The new plan bars drilling in Atlantic waters and thus reversed Obama’s previous decision to open up the east coast to oil and gas exploration. The Interior Department did however leave the door open to drilling in the Arctic, by keeping three lease sales in Alaska: in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet. This is a scale back from the plan for 2012-2017, which opened for seven lease sales in the US Arctic Ocean.
Asking for public input
The plans for the Arctic was left undeceive as Jewell said the department is weighing concerns expressed by Arctic communities regarding drilling and its possible effects on the natural wildlife. “As we put together the final plan we want to hear from the public to help determine whether these areas are appropriate for future leasing and how we can protect environmental, cultural and subsistence resources,” Secretary Jewell said in the announcement. She also stated that the Interior Department will be taking comments on other options than the three leases mentioned, including an alternative of no new leasing. In other words, there is still a possibility that drilling in the US Arctic will be completely barred for the next five years.
Trudeau and Obama pledge to protect the Arctic
Just ahead of the lease announcement, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama signed a joint statement, declaring a “new partnership” to confront climate change in the Arctic. One of the priorities in the US-Canada partnership will be to build a sustainable Arctic economy, where commercial activities must be balanced against high safety and environmental standards. Environmental organizations welcomed the agreement, but called for a clear ban on future oil and gas development in the region.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s congressional delegation criticized the statement for lacking input from anyone in the US Arctic. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a statement that the Obama administration sees the Arctic through the singular lens of climate change, while it has failed to account for the full range of needs in the region. Alaska Congressman Don Young said in a statement that the US-Canada plans disregard the Alaskan economy and made it clear that “the Obama administration has no interest in resource development in Alaska”
Mixed response from local communities
The Interior Department’s 2017-2022 plans were informed by comments, public meetings and extensive outreach with members of the public, non-profit organizations, industry, elected officials and other interested parties in Alaska. According to High Country News the feedback from local communities has been mixed. The local government of the North Slope Borough has been positive of responsible oil development, while other community leaders has opposed drilling completely. Alaska’s congressional delegation was positive that the plan opens for three leases, but remained critical of the administration’s Alaska policy. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep Don Young both criticized the regulatory obstacles for drilling in the US Arctic and argued that this would drive bidders away. Sen. Murkowski said in a statement that the Interior’s plan was welcome news, but only a “bare minimum.”
In September last year, Shell stopped its month long oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea because of disappointing findings, high costs and high regulations, especially given the low oil price. It was the first and only oil company to start exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
The Interior Department’s proposed program will have a 90 day comment period, but the administration has not specified when it will make a final decision on the issue.