Obama Creates Inter-Agency Coordination Group for Oil and Gas Development in Alaska

President Obama created Tuesday a new inter-agency group to coordinate oil and gas development in Alaska. It pulls together top officials from agencies like the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency and calls upon them to meet periodically to share information, get on the same page with permitting, and look to long term planning.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes will lead the new group.  His goal is to get the federal agencies on the same page.

“First we are going to facilitate orderly and efficient decision making processes by making sure agencies working together as we evaluate permits and conduct rigorous environmental reviews for onshore and offshore energy development projects in Alaska.”

President Obama first announced plans for an inter-agency coordination group on Alaskan development this spring, an idea that Senator Mark Begich had pushed. On Tuesday the White House released an executive order, making it official. Hayes says it gives the federal departments an organized way of working together.

“This means communicating on schedules, progress on different pending decisions, sharing application project information, developing jointly scientific and environmental data that are needed for good decision-making, pulling together cultural and traditional knowledge across our agencies that are relevant.  It means making sure that we’re working together as a federal family collectively to have the best information available to make the best decisions possible.”

Other agencies at the table include deputy-level staff from the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for gas projects, Larry Persily.

Persily says there’s certainly no downside to working together.

“Coordination is good, there’s no doubt about that. And certainly that’s what this office has been doing since it was set up. So I think we can bring that knowledge, that skill to the table, we’ve been living that for the past year and a half or so.”

Who’s not at the table?  The state of Alaska. The Executive Ordercalls for the group to designate a point of contact to work with the state, local Alaskan communities, tribes, and other stakeholders. But Governor Sean Parnell released a statement expressing concern that the state isn’t part of the actual working group.

However, the state did just let die the program that gives it a voice with the feds.  The Coastal Zone Management Program guaranteed Alaska input into federal actions on coastal development.

Joe Balash with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources says the programs are different.

“What we’re talking about here is in this case is an interagency work group that is actually charged with finding a way to get to yes as opposed to imposing additional hurdles on activities.  And so its offense verses defense I guess is probably the best or easiest way to describe it.”

Just how much the inter-agency coordination will change things inAlaskan oil and gas development is anyone’s guess, but with the Executive Order, President Obama and his team fulfill requests that have come in from the Congressional delegation and oil and gas officials.  They’ve complained that permits are given out too slowly.

But Hayes says this is not a one-stop-shop for oil and gas companies to get the go-ahead on development.

“I think what this is a one stop shop for coordination of permitting, which is extremely important. As I said before this is not a new super permitting group. Each department will continue to be responsible for instituting its statutory obligations. But will have a one stop shop for coordinating permitting of oil and gas in the arctic, and this group will ensure there is good coordination in that regard.”

Environmentalists welcomed Hayes statement that the coordination group won’t be fast-tracking development permits. Andrew Hartzig is the Anchorage-based director of the Arctic program at the Ocean Conservancy. He points out that the executive order calls for a safe and responsible approach to development.

“In the end, federal agencies still need to do their homework, especially with respect to science and spill response and ensure that they’re making no regrets decisions in arctic waters.”

The Interior Department’s David Hayes announced the new interagency group Tuesday at a conference on Arctic oil and gas development in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He took questions from the audience and other experts speaking at the event, including Fran Ulmer, head of the Arctic Research Commission.

She voiced concerns that responsible oil and gas development requires costly infrastructure and environmental investments, Ulmer used as an example the need for a new Coast Guard icebreaker, which is nowhere near becoming a reality.

“It does take investment, at the very same time that Congress seems totally preoccupied with the debt, not that that’s important, but there are counterbalancing interests. Could you comment please?”

Hayes admitted that some members of Congress have tried to punish the Obama Administration departments with budget cuts for what they see as permit delays. He says that actually slows things down.

“We’re concerned about that, we’re very concerned about that. And the arctic is a very good example of an area that could be affected in significant ways by budget implications.”

That talk about the budget gets to the heart of the situation in Washington, which is in gridlock over spending.

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