For the Department of Defense, the Arctic is Different

July 27, 2016 in Blog

When a new offshore oil and gas leasing plan is being developed, the Department of Defense (DOD) is required to assess the areas under consideration. Given the many offshore and coastal operations it conducts, DOD’s comments are given considerable weight by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) as it finalizes the leasing schedule.

When the Department does decide that oil and gas development in a certain area could be detrimental to military operations, leases are typically removed or significantly restricted. In the past the DOD has felt obliged to raise such concerns frequently.

Most recently it stated in 2015, that certain Atlantic sites could be conflict with existing military operations in the region. As a direct result, the Department of Interior (DOI) announced that it had removed all proposed Atlantic leases from the 2017-2022 plan, specifically citing the Pentagon’s concerns in its rationale for the decision.

Similarly, a 2010 DOD report stated that a large portion of proposed leases off the coast of Virginia would interfere would defense operations in the area, while in 2005 then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that even parts of the prolific Gulf of Mexico were incompatible with military activities. In each case the message is clear. When it comes to oil and gas development the DOD doesn’t take chances. National security considerations must take priority.

All of which, makes its viewpoint on the Arctic all the more noteworthy. When the Department of Interior released its first draft of the current plan, DOD conducted an evaluation of each proposed region, including the Beaufort and Chukchi leases. Having assessed the two proposed Arctic leases it gave them the best possible, “unrestricted” designation, indicating that it sees no harm in proceeding with the lease sales and foresees no conflict with any nearby military activities.

The military’s tacit approval of Arctic offshore development is not a new phenomenon. Having consulted DOD on each of the last three Outer Continental Shelf leasing (OCS) plans (2002-2007, 2007-2012 and 2012-2017) BOEM has stated:

“Although there are military use areas within the Alaska Region, OCS oil and gas leasing and related activities are not expected to interfere with military operations.”

A group of former senior military officials led by former US Secretary of Defense William Cohen went far further, explicitly calling for the Arctic to be included in the next OCS leasing schedule. As they cautioned,

“Excluding the Arctic from the Program would signal retreat, needlessly reducing U.S. flexibility for promoting our national interests and our ability to ensure international cooperation, including ensuring best practices in Arctic drilling, in this sensitive and increasingly strategic region.”

The National Petroleum Council also made the connection between the infrastructure created by Arctic development and military objectives in the region:

“Investments by any party in new or upgraded airfields, ports, roads, navigational aids, satellites, radars, and high-bandwidth communications facilities could confer wide benefits. The Coast Guard and Navy, which play key roles in the areas of safety, search and rescue and security, and national defense, are subject to many of the same resupply and support requirements in the Arctic as the oil and gas industry. These organizations could also play a complementary role in the sharing of infrastructure.”

The military’s belief that offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic does not conflict with military strategies is longstanding. Since 1980, it has never once alluded to conflict between military and energy exploration activities. The Arctic is in fact the only region that has been awarded blanket approval across all sites, without exception.

When DOI announces its proposed program for the 2017 – 2022, hopefully it remains consistent with its previous actions and continues to give national security considerations the same weight as it has done in the past. As numerous experts have shown, oil and gas development in the region is critical to our national security.

Image Credit: Department of Defense