If tickets could be sold to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hearings in March on the Interior Department’s annual appropriation, it would be a sell-out crowd as Secretary Sally Jewell is sure to come in for a roasting.
The Secretary has blocked a medical evacuation road for King Cove, in southwest Alaska, placed large areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off limits to oil and gas exploration, and has recommended wilderness status for the bulk of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including its coastal plain that has potential for large new oil and gas discoveries.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, is reported to be pressing costly mitigation measures on ConocoPhillips on the company’s planned Greater Moose’s Tooth-1, or GMT-1, oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
If BLM’s actions make the project uneconomic it will lose the 30,000 barrels per day of oil production that GMT-1 could produce for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, currently running three-quarters empty.
The ANWR decision, however, had truly inflamed Alaska leaders and the state’s congressional delegation.
“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and grandchildren, to thrive,” Murkowski said in a statement.
Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as well as the appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department.
“It’s clear that the administration (of President Barack Obama) does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but territory. The promises made at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them,” the senator said.
Gov. Bill Walker said he was stunned that Jewell took her action at a time when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is running at one-fourth capacity and the state faces a two years of $3.5 billion budget deficits.
North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, who represents the Inupiuat people of the North Slope, damned the decision by Jewell.
“Today’s announcement by the Department of the Interior represents the worst of Washington politics,” Brower said. “These types of paternalistic, executive fiats seem to be more appropriate for Andrew Jackson’s administration than Barack Obama’s. The people of the North Slope have been unequivocal in their opposition to further wilderness designations in ANWR.”
Currently 7 million acres of the 19.8-million-acre refuge is given wilderness status, not including the coastal plain of the refuge, which encompasses about 1.5 million acres. Jewell’s proposal would extend wilderness status to 12.28 million acres, the majority of its area, including the coastal plain.
In a statement issued Jan. 25, the Interior Department said, “Today’s action builds on years of public engagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the Comprehensive Conservation Plan and complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by law. The plan will guide the service’s management decisions for the next 15 years.”
No further public comments are being taken for the plan but it is available for a 30-day public review, after which a Record of Decision will be published, the statement said. At that point the president will make the formal wilderness recommendation to Congress.
Congress must approve the formal designation as wilderness but Jewell’s action makes an administrative decision that means it is de facto wilderness.
State attorneys offered their perspective on Jewell’s decision:
“The Comprehensive Conservation Plan, or CCP, is the completed wilderness review,” said Cori Mills, spokeswoman for the state Department of Law. “Only Congress can designate wilderness, but agency management policies dictate that land the agency recommends for wilderness designation be managed to preserve its suitability, which means that the agencies manage the recommended land as if it were already designated wilderness.”
Meanwhile, it is unclear how the recommendation will affect the state’s proposal to conduct a limited winter-only exploration program in the coastal plain. The Interior Department has rejected the state’s proposal and the state has brought suit in federal court, arguing that the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act allows for exploration in the coastal plain that meets the wildlife service’s land management guidelines.
“The (state’s) 1002 lawsuit and the CCP are generally separate issues,” Mills said. “If the State’s interpretation of the law is correct, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is legally bound to accept the state’s exploration plan for review and the new CCP does not change that.
“In particular, that is because the CCP does not fundamentally change the day-to-day ‘minimal management’ of the 1002 Area that has been in place for some time. The primary impact of the CCP is to direct a request to Congress for the 1002 Area to be formally designated as Wilderness. The CCP does not affect our legal arguments in the lawsuit until Congress says something different than what ANILCA currently says, or until the (U.S. District) Court issues a decision interpreting Section 1002.”
Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason is currently reviewing a request by the Interior Department to dismiss the state’s lawsuit.
Interior officials defended Jewell’s recommendation: “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge preserves a unique diversity of wildlife and habitat in a corner of America that is still wild and free,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“But it faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy. The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow.”
As for the inhabitants, the Department of Interior press release mentioned only the Gwich’in people of Arctic Village and Venetie in Interior Alaska, who have opposed any exploration in the refuge’s coastal plain, and made no mention of the Inupiat people of Kaktovik, who live on Barter Island at the northern edge of the refuge.
The residents of Kaktovik are more open to exploration and in fact own lands within the coastal plain.
About the Gwich’in, the Interior Department statement said, “The refuge holds special meaning to Alaska Natives, having sustained their lives and culture for thousands of years. The Gwich’in people refer to the coastal plain the refuge as ‘the sacred place where life begins,” reflecting the area’s importance to their community, maintaining healthy herds of caribou and an abundance of other wildlife.”
Brower, who as North Slope Borough mayor represents the people of Kaktovik, took exception to the Interior Department’s regard for only the Gwich’in.
“How ironic is this decision on the heels of this week’s earlier Executive Order calling for federal agencies to consult more with Alaska Native people over arctic issues,” the mayor said
The North Slope Borough had expressed its opposition to any further Wilderness designations within ANWR thro ugh written comments submitted to the Wildlife Servicein 2011.
“We would like to invite President Obama and Secretary Jewell to travel to ANWR and meet with the people who actually live there before proposing these types of sweeping land designations,” Brower said.
“They might learn that the Inupiat people, who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia, have no interest in living like relics in a giant, open-air museum. Rather, they hope to have the same rights and privileges enjoyed by people across the rest of the country.”
OCS areas withdrawn
Meanwhile, on Jan. 27 Barack Obama’s announced a new five-year offshore leasing program, from 2017 to 2022, that would withhold 9.8 million acres of environmentally-sensitive Outer Continental Shelf marine areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from leasing.
The order would appear to have limited effect on currently exploration, however, because much of the acreage is already withdrawn in current lease sales.
The new schedule, which begins in 2017, includes three Alaska OCS sales, a Beaufort Sea sale in 2020, a Cook Inlet sale in 2021 and a Chukchi Sea sale in 2022. Acreage to be offered will be determined later.
The areas withdrawn include three areas of the Chukchi Sea, a 25-mile buffer area along the Alaskan coast, an additional subsistence use area near Barrow, and the Hanna Shoal, an environmentally-sensitive area.
Two areas of the Beaufort Sea are withdrawn, a subsistence whaling areas near Barrow and Kaktovik, two Inuipiat villages along the northern coast.
The coastal buffer and subsistence whaling areas are currently withheld from leasing but the Hanna Shoal is a new addition that would apply in the planned 2016 and 2020 Chukchi sale.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is currently planning a Chukchi Sea sale in 2016, sale 237, and a Beaufort Sea sale in 2017, sale 242, in the current five-year OCS schedule. BOEM is also planning a Cook Inlet OCS offering, sale 244, in 2016.
In a statement, a senior White House official said the sensitivity of the Arctic region justifies the withdrawals.
“Teeming with biological diversity, these areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi are part of one of the last great marine wildernesses left untouched by development,” said Mike Boots, head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a statement.
“Endangered whales swim through the icy seas, walruses and bearded seals feed on the Hanna Shoal, and more than 40 species of fish like cod and herring grant fishermen their livelihoods. Each year, the bowhead whale hunt draws Native communities throughout northern Alaska, as essential for their sustenance as it is to their way of life and cultural history.”
There had been industry reports in Alaska that the 2016 and 2017 Chukchi and Beaufort lease sales may not be held because of the uncertainties around whether Shell will be able to do exploratory drilling on its existing leases in the Chukchi.
BOEM spokesman John Callahan said the sales are still planned, however.
Shell’s drilling in the Chukchi, on leases the company acquired in 2008, has been delayed for a number of reasons including lawsuits by environmental groups and proposed new Arctic OCS drilling rules expected to be issued soon by the Interior Department.
Alaska officials, including Gov. Bill Walker, are concerned about any further restrictions on oil and gas exploration. OCS development would, under current law, provide no direct revenues to the state but offshore oil would almost surely be piped ashore and would provide badly-needed oil to support the TAPS pipeline, which supports oil production from onshore state-owned lands.
OCS activity is also an important source of new employment for the state.