Arctic dropped from U.S. offshore leasing program

 Drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental groups that say a spill would devastate a fragile marine environment that’s home to polar bears, walrus, endangered whales and the Native Alaskans who rely on them. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The New York Times)
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The New York Times)

WASHINGTON – The United States will not allow new offshore oil and gas leases in the U.S. Arctic for the foreseeable future, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Friday.

The Obama administration had been considering allowing limited drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s northern coast, as it developed a plan on what waters would be open to lease between 2017 and 2022. But fears that in the event of a spill the harsh and remote Arctic environment would present a challenge to cleanup efforts worried officials.

“Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward,” Jewell said in a statement.

The announcement represents another blow to the offshore oil and gas industry, which had already watched its prospects for drilling along the Atlantic coastline dismissed by Jewell in March, following protest from environmental groups.

In the months since oil and gas lobbyists had campaigned to try and keep the U.S. Artic in the offshore plan, enlisting local officials in Alaska and some of the tribes that live along the Artic coast to argue oil and gas development was critical to growing their economy.

Randall Luthi, president of the offshore drilling trade group National Ocean Industries Association, called the announcement a  “short-sighted political decision that threatens U.S. energy security, pulls the rug out from under Alaskans, and is a slap in the face and for consumers in the U.S. and throughout the world.”

But the decision might be short-lived. Congress could act early next year to overturn it through the Congressional Review Act. If they did, President-elect Donald Trump, who has presented himself as a vigorous advocate for growing U.S. oil and gas production, would be able to replace Obama’s five year plan with his own.

The offshore plan presented by Jewell Friday did not go as far as many environmentalists had hoped, arguing the country needs to wean itself off oil and gas to counter climate change. The plan will allow drilling in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which sits below the Arctic Circle. And there will be 10 lease sales scheduled for the Gulf of Mexico, the administration said.

“The proposal makes available more than 70% of the economically recoverable resources, which is ample opportunity for oil and gas development to meet the nation’s energy needs,” said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper.