Alaska may have found a way to overcome Federal obscructionism over further developing their rich natural resources–drilling in the off-shore areas the state controls, a few miles away.
Environmentalists are upset about this, and are pointing out that it can be riskier to drill off-shore than on land–but of course they’ve opposed ANWR drilling itself, which would take place on dry land, have a miniscule footprint, and incur minimal impact to the wildlife there (such as caribou), if the existing installation at Prudhoe Bay has anything to tell us about it. (Prudhoe Bay’s footprint has increased over the years, but ANWR’s would not have to, if the regulations were written carefully enough: the most standard recommendation for an ANWR facility would be no bigger than a metropolitan airport–a drop in the bucket of the huge wildlife refuge.)
“The first couple of years of the Obama administration have felt like an onslaught,” Alaska Department of Resources Commissioner Daniel Sullivan told National Journal in an interview.
So state officials say they found a way to take action. While the state has no control over drilling in ANWR, it does own the three miles of Arctic Ocean just off the coast—after those three miles, the federal government owns the waters. Officials say it stands to reason that that three-mile ribbon likely cuts through the vast oil deposits believed to lie beneath ANWR and the Arctic Ocean. Alaskan officials and oil companies hope that by drilling in that strip, they can tap into up to a dozen giant oil pools that would otherwise be off-limits. And if they do hit significant reserves there, that could pressure the federal government to open adjacent areas. Another option Alaskan officials are hoping for is passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would allow drillers in state-owned waters to use horizontal drills to siphon oil from underneath the adjacent protected areas.
Sullivan said he expects Alaska’s October sale of onshore and offshore drilling leases to be the largest such sale this year. Overall, it will open up 14.7 million acres to drilling, an area equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont combined.
He added that he is confident that companies that find oil in the state waters between the federal properties will be able to withstand any legal challenges.
“We’ve looked hard at the legal issues surrounding such plays, and we are confident that if a company drilled down straight down within that play, and drained that reserve, they will be within their legal rights. Large oil and gas fields don’t respect state and federal boundaries. But if a company drilling on state land hit that well they would be within their legal right to drain that well.”
The pushback from the environmental community should be fierce. Over a year after the deadly Gulf oil spill highlighted the dangers of offshore drilling, Congress has yet to pass legislation requiring new offshore-drilling safety measures, and environmental advocates, led by the Pew Environment Group, have pressed President Obama not to allow any new drilling in Arctic waters, where, green groups say, extreme weather conditions and a sensitive ecosystem could make the impacts of a spill even more devastating.
Eleanor Huffines, manager of Pew’s U.S. Arctic Program, said that the group does not have a problem with the current drilling in Alaska’s state-owned waters, which takes place near the on-land Prudhoe Bay drilling operations.
“To date the state-water offshore-drilling facilities have been done in a way that minimizes harm to the environment,” she said. “But for each plan, location is important. To date it’s been done safely, but that’s not to say you could do that off ANWR. You have to connect to the coast, which means building infrastructure. How could you do that in ANWR? The risks to sensitive species would be higher. It would be much more difficult to do safely.”
Sullivan said that the state will not allow drilling in the most environmentally sensitive areas, where whale migration and whale calving areas are.
Of course, the other environmentalist concern has to do with the fact that if a spill were to occur in the Arctic Sea, it would be much more difficult to react than it has been when, for instance, a large spill such as Ixtoc 1 or Deepwater Horizon occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet many of the same people support this administration’s “permitorium” in the Gulf, without regard for what it’s doing to people’s livelihoods in that area, and without specifying how we’re supposed to make up the oil shortfall.
The logic is backward, just as it was when people overreacted to the Deepwater Horizon spill with cries to curtail the development (rather than enforce regulations more effectively)–and no apparent awareness that more drilling occurs in deeper water because many of the shallower parts of the Outer Continental Shelf are declared off-limits.