Op-Ed: North Slope seas contain oil and gas vital to US

Alaska's offshore oil and natural gas resources are vital to the nation's strategic economic and energy security. That's why I strongly support responsible exploration and production in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Our North Slope contributes 13 percent of America's total oil production, but that figure could be far higher.

The most recent estimate put Alaska's offshore resources at 27 billion barrels of oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

That's energy we can and should contribute for the good of the nation.

Unfortunately, as a result of environmental litigation, a federal appeals court has effectively halted plans for offshore leasing in our state.

Until the Department of the Interior completes additional analysis related to development, that decision will prevent exploration and leasing from taking place in Alaska's offshore waters.

The good news is that this should prove only a temporary setback.

Our state has a long history of responsibly developing its natural resources while protecting sensitive ecosystems. Going forward, that will not change.

The original plan for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas rightly set aside areas for subsistence whaling in order to minimize the impact on traditional hunts, which are essential to the culture and nutrition of residents of Arctic Alaska.

With the right protections and process in place, I'm confident that subsistence activities and energy development can comfortably co-exist.

Offshore development is also crucial to the continued prosperity of Alaska.

We need offshore production to ensure the long-term viability of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and a future natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48.

According to the University of Alaska, offshore development could create 35,000 new jobs.

Keeping Alaska's rich resources locked up will only increase America's dependence on foreign energy and impede efforts to recover from the recession. Oil and gas development is also one of the largest sources of government revenue -- a mechanism to provide services while keeping taxes low.

Not all money raised from development should flow to the federal treasury, however.

Sharing a portion of revenues with coastal states and communities is simply the right thing to do. I've introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that all states with offshore production receive a fair share.

I'm reaching out to leaders across the country to build support for this concept, just as I look forward to working with Gov. Parnell to promote responsible development here at home.

Given the stakes, it's important that offshore development in Alaska be allowed to proceed. And I'm optimistic Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will act quickly to make sure that's the case. The Secretary has pledged to expeditiously complete the analysis the courts have asked for.

Given that it requires no new research or field work, and Interior started months ago, I expect it will be completed quickly and without unnecessary political delay.

I believe the science shows that offshore production can be safely conducted in Alaska's federal waters, allowing Secretary Salazar to prove that the department's plans were made with all due diligence. Once this happens, the department's existing offshore plan can be affirmed, and leasing can proceed.

Of course, there's also a chance that Secretary Salazar could attempt to cancel leases issued in the Chukchi and Beaufort in 2008.

That would force the federal government to pay back more than $3 billion to the companies that bid at those sales and lead to massive litigation.

Ultimately, how this administration chooses to proceed with offshore development in Alaska will serve as a defining moment for its energy and as-yet-undefined Arctic policies.

Time is of the essence. Decisions made now will impact the industry's willingness and ability to explore for energy well into the future.

We must recognize that oil and gas will continue to supply the majority of our nation's energy for decades to come -- even as we transition to cleaner resources.

I believe as much of that energy as possible should come from secure, reliable, domestic sources that can be responsibly produced.

Those looking for an example of where that can and does happen need only look north -- to Alaska.