Obama Unilaterally Keeps Arctic Seas Off Limits To Drilling

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Obama administration plans to open up the Atlantic coast to offshore oil drilling with one hand, and with the other hand, it will make sure companies can’t extract oil from Alaska’s Arctic coast— possibly the world’s largest untapped oil reserves.

The Department of the Interior announced 14 potential offshore lease sales in the next five years, including 10 potential lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, three off Alaska’s coast, and one in the Atlantic. But Obama also used his executive authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to keep large portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off limits to drillers.

“We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique (sic) environment, so we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “At the same time, the president is taking thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska natives and wildlife.”

The oil and gas industry have called it a small step forward, but Republican lawmakers have blasted Obama for keeping key Arctic offshore oil basins off limits to drillers.

“This administration is determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska’s federal areas – and this offshore plan is yet another example of their short-sighted thinking,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Mirkowski and fellow Alaska lawmakers recently blasted the Obama administration for asking Congress to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness to make it off limits to oil and natural gas exploration. Congressional approval is needed to permanently make ANWR a protected wilderness.

“The president’s indefinite withdrawal of broad areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas is the same unilateral approach this administration is taking in placing restrictions on the vast energy resources in ANWR and the NPR-A,” Murkowski said.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has promised to hold potential lease sales off the Atlantic coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

“Opening Atlantic waters to offshore drilling would take us in exactly the wrong direction,” Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times. “It would ignore the lessons of the disastrous BP blowout, the need to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change and the promise of a clean­ energy future.”

“The BP blowout oiled a thousand miles of coastline, about the distance from Savannah to Boston,” Deans wrote. “Opening up part of the Atlantic to drilling could expose the entire Eastern Seaboard to the risks of a catastrophic blowout.”

U.S. offshore oil production made up 18 percent of total domestic oil production and 5 percent of natural production in 2013. But federal offshore oil production has fallen under Obama from 1.5 million barrels per day in 2009 to under 1.3 million barrels per day in 2013.

Offshore drilling has come under fire in the  years since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the wake of the incident, the Obama administration imposed a moratorium on offshore drilling. Offshore drilling came under further attacks after a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig was run aground during a fierce storm off Alaska’s Arctic coast.

But the proposed lease sales won’t take place until after Obama has left office. meaning it will be up to a future administration to hold the lease sales.

“The proposed lease sales we’re talking about right now aren’t scheduled until after President Obama is out of office,” Murkowski said. “Forgive me for remaining skeptical about this administration’s commitment to our energy security.”

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Beaufort Sea contains 29 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, and the Chukchi Sea contains 13 billion barrels of oil.

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