Arctic removed from offshore leasing program for the next five years
November 20, 2016
Considering the fragile and unique Arctic ecosystem and the recent demonstrated decline in industry interest, the Proposed Final Program does not include any lease sales in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas. Based on consideration of the best available science and significant public input, the Department’s analysis identified significant risks to sensitive marine resources and communities from potential new leasing in the Arctic. Moreover, due to the high costs associated with exploration and development in the Arctic and the foreseeable low projected oil prices environment, demonstrated industry interest in new leasing currently is low.
Governor Bill Walker said in a prepared statement that he is very disappointed with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s announcement Friday. Walker said, "Alaska supports a plan that balances subsistence concerns with our need for economic development. There is enough opportunity and protection in the plan that it should have been an easy decision to move forward with our proposal. The State nominated the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas to ensure Alaskans’ interests were protected in this process. The nominations provided subsistence protection, as well as the benefits under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). With the trans-Alaska pipeline three-quarters empty, we must spur more oil production."
Walker said, " When Alaska became a state, the federal government mandated that we live off of our resources - but we must be able to access them. My administration will reconvene with the whaling communities and industry to determine next steps.”
The Proposed Final Program does includes one sale in the northern portion of the Cook Inlet Planning Area. Cook Inlet is a mature basin with a long history of oil and gas development in state waters, where existing infrastructure could support new activity. The design of this program area balances the protection of endangered species by taking into account the beluga whale and the northern sea otter critical habitat, with the availability for leasing of areas with the greatest industry interest and existence of oil and gas resources.
“The Arctic Ocean contains vital ecological areas that are critical for the survival of many birds and wildlife species,” said Nils Warnock, Executive Director for Audubon Alaska. “This prudent Five-Year Program prevents new leasing in this crucial habitat at a time of unprecedented ecological change in the Arctic.”
According to Audubon Alaska, offshore from Barrow, the farthest north community in the US, Barrow Canyon is a hotspot of biodiversity. The seafloor drops suddenly, creating an underwater canyon. When the cold, nutrient-rich Arctic Current encounters this barrier, it rises to create a fertile upwelling of foods consumed by many types of larger marine animals, such as bowhead and beluga whales.
In the shallow waters of Harrison Bay, millions of birds congregate to take advantage of the rich aquatic foodweb says Audubon Alaska. The Colville River is Alaska’s largest Arctic river, and the nutrient supply from the Colville combines with shallow water of Harrison Bay, resulting in higher productivity than other areas nearshore in the Beaufort Sea. The sheltered waters support a remarkable diversity of bird species of concern, from Artic Terns to Yellow-billed Loons, from Surf Scoters to King Eiders. Harrison Bay harbors a substantial abundance, as well as diversity, of seabirds and seaducks.
Audubon Alaska also identifies Smith Bay, another vital ecological area in the Arctic Ocean, is also well known for its bird life. Several rivers flow into Smith Bay, where a ring of barrier islands shelters shallow waters from the greater Beaufort Sea. Smith Bay is adjacent to the Teshekpuk Lake area, a known ecological hotspot for molting and nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. These birds also forage along the nearby coasts and marine waters. Birds such as Pomarine Jaegers, Red Phalaropes, shearwaters, and Thick-billed Murres rely on these areas; feeding bowhead whales use these waters in the summer and fall; and ice edges provide foraging and maternal denning habitat for polar bears.
“Removing the Arctic Ocean from the Five-Year Program is a tangible first step toward alleviating the pressures of oil spills and climate change on these most important Arctic marine areas,” said Warnock.
According to Audubon Alaska, there are ten globally-significant Important Bird Areas, supporting millions of birds, in the Arctic Ocean and along its shoreline in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas lease areas. The Chukchi and Beaufort seas are also home to polar bears, walrus, four species of ice seals, and several species of whales.
Along with the Arctic Ocean, the Alantic Ocean was also removed from the offshore leasing program for the next five years,
After considering more than 3.3 million public comments and holding 36 public meetings, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abigail Hopper on Friday released the final plan Friday to guide future energy development for the Nation’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) for 2017-2022. They say the plan takes a balanced approach to best meet the nation’s energy needs by including areas offshore with high resource potential and mature infrastructure while protecting regions with critical ecological resources.
The Proposed Final Program does offer 11 potential lease sales in four planning areas – 10 sales in the portions of three Gulf of Mexico Program Areas that are not under moratorium and one sale off the coast of Alaska in the Cook Inlet Program Area. After receiving extensive public input and analyzing the best available scientific data, the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas planning areas in the Arctic are not included in the Proposed Final Program. The Proposed Final Program makes available areas containing approximately 70 percent of the economically recoverable resources in the OCS.
“The plan focuses lease sales in the best places – those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure – and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” said Secretary Jewell. “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.”
“The plan was informed by robust stakeholder engagement and the best available science,” said BOEM Director Hopper. “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.”
Release of the Proposed Final Program, along with the accompanying Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, is one of the final steps in a multi-year process that was initiated in June 2014 to develop a final offshore leasing program for 2017-2022.
The OCS Lands Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a Five-Year Program that includes a schedule of potential oil and gas lease sales and indicates the size, timing and location of proposed leasing determined to best meet national energy needs, while addressing a range of economic, environmental and social considerations.
The Secretary may approve the final 2017-2022 program after a minimum of 60 days; the plan would then become effective on July 1, 2017.
Reporting & Editing by Mary Kauffman, SitNews
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