KTUU (NBC): Obama plan would open OCS to development, close Bristol Bay

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The Obama administration's announcement Wednesday of its plans for offshore U.S. oil and gas exploration will strongly affect Alaska's Arctic Ocean coastline and the Bristol Bay region.

The expansion of Outer Continental Shelf development gives Alaska's largest-grossing lease sale clearance to continue its plans for drilling.

"This was one of the important milestones on our continual effort to mobilize a drilling ship into the Chukchi or the Beaufort (seas)," said Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby.

It validates a lease sale that was challenged in court by claims that not enough research was done on potential environmental impacts. This means Shell, one of the dominant players for the lease, can start exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer once it gets the necessary air quality permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sen. Mark Begich says he commends the Obama administration for incorporating recommendations from Alaskans, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski says it's a mixed bag.

"I think for us in Alaska, getting some certainty on the Chukchi and Beaufort was good," Murkowski said. "We will need to ensure that the EPA air quality permit is issued very, very quickly so that operations can begin this summer."

Rep. Don Young, however, didn't see any good in the new plan.

"While I appreciate the president's seeming departure from his extreme environmental left supporters, all I'm seeing in this exploration 'plan' is smoke and mirrors," Young said in a statement.

The administration also called for protection of the North Aleutian Basin, which means the Bristol Bay region is off-limits to drilling. Environmental groups say more needs to be done.

"We would like to see the president do the same kind of careful listening and scientific analysis in the Arctic Ocean, ultimately setting aside the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas development as they've done for Bristol Bay," said Betsy Beardsley of the Alaska Wilderness League.

"We are going to be pushing for permanent protection," said Dan Strickland with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Because a presidential withdrawal like this can be just as easily taken away with a new president and a new signature."

But Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack says residents need the lease sale in the Bristol Bay region for jobs.

"They are almost all in favor of responsible gas and oil development," Mack said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Shell says it expects a battle to obtain the air quality permits, with more litigation and appeals.

Four other planned leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas will be delayed for further environmental study, and may be re-offered in the 2012-2017 leasing plan.

There will be a 30-day public comment period that starts on Friday, so people will be able to add their input to the Federal Register on the current 2007-2012 leasing plan.

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Source: By Christine Kim. Originally published March 31, 2010