Lawmaker’s Arctic Letter Ignores a Few Things – Like the Law

June 7, 2016 in Blog

Last week, a very small group of U.S. Senators – 11 to be exact – signed a letter requesting that the Department of Interior (DOI) remove all Arctic leases from its 2017-2022 offshore leasing plan. The letter argues that not only should no Arctic lease sales be included in the new plan, but that there be no new leases anywhere in America’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) at all. ZERO. No wonder almost 90 percent of the Senate chose not to sign the letter.

Having earlier this year successfully lobbied President Obama to drop plans to offer lease sales along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, this small group of Senators, has now turned their attention to Alaska. The letter was signed by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) – not one of whom actually represents the state of Alaska.

In fact, the Alaska delegation has already made its feelings on the subject very clear, stating in a May 17th letter to Secretary Jewell, that:

“Combined with other recent actions that have raised regulatory uncertainty and discouraged  prospects for Alaskan development, further reduction in the potential leasing area at this stage is premature and would compromise the long-term energy and economic security of Alaska and the nation.”

Proposing new lease sales is the primary intent of each new 5-Year Plan.  According to the 1953 OCS Lands Act, the Secretary of the Interior is responsible for the administration of mineral exploration in development of the Outer Continental Shelf. The law requires:

“that the Secretary prepare a 5-year program that includes a schedule of oil and gas lease sales and indicates the size, timing and location of proposed leasing activity as determined by the Secretary to best meet national energy needs for the 5-year period following its approval, while addressing a range of economic, environmental and social considerations.”

The choice to zero in on Arctic drilling, while conveniently leaving out a number of key facts, is another instance of the letter missing the mark. While none the signatories represent Alaska, it would be helpful if they listened to the opinions of those that actually live in the Arctic. The members of Arctic Inupiat Offshore – an organization of seven Native Corporations which represent the communities of Barrow, Point Hope, Wainwright, Kaktovik, Atqasuk and Anaktuvuk Pass – have spoken out multiple times in favor of development. In fact, they recently submitted comments to the DOI which noted:

“Non-Alaskan and non-Arctic residents ironically suggest the exclusion of the Arctic OCS from the Proposed Program, an area where they have likely never visited, and certainly never experienced the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from the perspective of a whaling boat or as a local community leader in one of the six indigenous coastal communities. […] Those who call for exclusion of the Arctic OCS have little regard for the reality of what life in the Arctic looks like, and by calling for this exclusion, similarly call for the deterioration of our communities and local peoples.”

Without OCS drilling activity, Arctic infrastructure will suffer, placing local communities and the entire nation, at risk. State Department Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert J. Papp highlighted the importance of Arctic infrastructure at a Brookings event this year stating:

“The country needs […]. a deepwater port in Alaska, better telecommunications, and a whole list of issues that we need to be prepared for. The fact that Shell was going to be operational here provided incentive and drew attention to so many of the area’s other needs.”

As other countries make huge strides in Arctic infrastructure and drilling capability, America risks falling far behind when it comes to Arctic progress.

The Arctic Circle is estimated to hold 90 billion barrels of oil. That’s 339% percent of U.S. known reserves and the U.S. Arctic alone is estimated to contain 35 billion barrels of oil in conventional resource potential. By removing Arctic leases from the next five year plan, the Administration would be closing off one of America’s great energy basins, while ignoring the needs of those that depend upon these resources.

When drilling projects are shut down, or leases are taken off the table, it is the local Alaskan people who often suffer most. As Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Chairman and Barrow Whaling Captain Crawford Patkotak stated:

“We’re concerned that the environmentalists are trying to save the world at the expense of the Inupiat people of the Arctic Slope.”

The signatories of last week’s letter ignored some key truths about the Arctic by calling for the removal of its drilling leases. The communities across Alaska want the option left on the table for future Arctic lease sales. It is their voice that should be heard.