Interior Secretary Tells Alaskans Obama Backs Drilling

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to Anchorage on Monday and said the Obama administration supports more oil drilling in Alaska, potentially including offshore Arctic development.

Salazar joined Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed for a meeting with Alaska business people and said the president's feeling toward Arctic offshore drilling is “Let's take a look at what's up there and see what it is we can develop.”

But any Arctic oil development must be done carefully, he said. Salazar said the Arctic lacks needed infrastructure for responding to potential offshore oil spills and cited painful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“Not the mightiest companies with multibillion-dollar pockets were able to do what needed to be done in a timely basis, and the representations of preparation simply turned out not to be true from the oil companies that had a legal obligation to shut down that kind of an oil spill. …,” Salazar told Alaska reporters. “When you look at the Arctic itself, we recognize that there are different realities — the ocean is a much shallower ocean, conditions are very different than we had in the Gulf of Mexico. (But) there are challenges that are unique to the Arctic.”

Salazar said a step toward a solution is “having an agency within the United States government and Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulation, that can in fact do its job.” The agency is the successor to the Minerals Management Service, which was discredited after the Gulf spill.

“Secondly, there will be conditions that will be imposed on whatever drilling that does occur in either the Beaufort or the Chukchi on down the road that will incorporate the lessons that have been learned (from the Gulf spill),” he said. “And thirdly, there is also a recognition we have that there is additional work that needs to be done with respect to the understanding of the Arctic, the science and the need for having effective oil spill response.”

Begich, a Democrat, said he was encouraged that the administration is taking steps toward Arctic development while working out what Coast Guard and other resources would be needed in the area.

Last week the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement gave Shell a conditional exploration permit that covers a program that would drill four wells over two years in Camden Bay of the Beaufort Sea, due north of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the permit is contingent on many other federal permits and approvals, including oil-spill response plans and marine mammal protection.

Shell is also seeking authorization to drill in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell's Alaska government affairs manager, Cam Toohey, was at Monday's meeting with Salazar and Begich at the Cook Inlet Regional Inc. building in Midtown. Toohey said the oil company has seen what it considers an improved attitude in the Interior Department toward providing the certainty needed to invest in projects.

Obama in July signed an executive order to create a new federal working group tasked with having agencies better coordinate Alaska oil and gas permitting and other regulatory oversight. The White House said the working group, which is overseen by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, is designed to simplify oil and gas decision-making in Alaska by bringing together federal agencies to collaborate as they evaluate permits and environmental reviews. Hayes joined Salazar in traveling to Alaska this week.

Salazar said he hoped it would help with instances like the dispute among agencies over a permit for a bridge crossing of the Colville River, which would let companies develop the onshore CD-5 drill site within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Salazar on Monday reiterated Obama's support for drilling in the NPR-A. He said the president wants to increase the domestic energy supply, reduce consumption through measures like greater fuel efficiency and develop alternative fuels.

Obama does not support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Salazar said there are places like NPR-A to focus on drilling “where we don't have to deal with that particular controversy.”

The Alaska business people that Salazar, Begich and Reed met with in Anchorage Monday morning were particularly concerned about what CIRI President Margie Brown described as the “regulatory morass that we find ourselves in.” Deputy Interior Secretary Hayes after the meeting went to have a discussion with the governor's office, which has loudly and repeatedly complained about such regulations.

Begich and Salazar also met with the Alaska Federation of Natives on Monday before Salazar, Hayes and Reed went on to Fairbanks to tour the Bureau of Land Management wildfire-fighting facilities along with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Reed, a Democrat, is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department.

The agenda for Salazar's Alaska trip also includes a visit to the Alpine oil field on the North Slope, a flyover of the NPR-A and a meeting with Shell officials in Barrow on offshore exploration. Murkowski, a Republican, will accompany him.

Salazar was in Kodiak over the weekend and will conclude his trip Wednesday with a visit to the Eielson Visitors Center in Denali National Park and Preserve.