The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management received comments this week on the proposed 2016 lease sale for the Chukchi Sea.
Unlike lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, new Arctic lease sales are targeted – certain areas may not be up for auction.
This new approach, which was laid out in 2012, got mixed reactions from both industry and conservation groups.
In a conference room filled with binders of data and shelves of books, the Audubon Society’s science director, Melanie Smith, flips through a 125-page document.
“So what we have are a set of 36 maps,” she said.
They make up the meat of the organization’s comments to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management regarding the proposed lease sale. It’s a compilation of everything the scientific community knows about the Chukchi Sea.
She goes through the map that shows which areas Audubon, Oceana, and other conservation organizations think should not be sold for oil and gas development.
“When you get to Ledyard Bay,” Smith said, pointing at an area south of Point Lay. “You have, for example, critical habitat for spectacled eiders. You have bowhead and beluga whales migrating through in the spring that cut this corner.”
Other areas offer critical habitat for polar bears. The Hanna Shoal is an essential walrus haul out because the ice melts there last. Audubon’s proposed restricted areas overlap with about one-quarter of the areas the federal agency thinks has the highest resource potential. It also overlaps with areas set aside by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Smith said her organization does not want to see any drilling in the Arctic, but if BOEM does go ahead with a sale, these areas as the most essential for protection.
“If a spill were to happen, and you were already inside the important place, you’re affecting it as soon as a spill starts,” she explained. “If a spill happens outside of the important place, you do have a little bit of buffer time for a response.”
Smith says that’s why they provided such extensive information to BOEM – so they could make informed decisions.
But Alaska Oil and Gas Association and other industry groups had the opposite reaction to the agency’s Call for Information. The agency had asked the industry to highlight areas they thought were especially promising for development. AOGA’s regulatory and legal affairs manager, Joshua Kindred, said BOEM already has all of the information that’s available to the industry, so they shouldn’t ask for more.
“What they’re asking industry to do is engage in resources from both a financial and temporal standpoint in an area that may not be up for lease,” he said. “And that’s somewhat counter intuitive.”
Kindred said that the industry wants the entire area open for leasing, not just certain blocks.
“By doing this, you’re going to diminish the interest in that area,” he said.
Without providing any benefits, “Targeting leasing doesn’t offer any more protection to the environment than area-wide leasing,” he said.
And on this point, the industry and some environmental groups agree.
“If there’s a spill, you cannot control where it goes,” Charles Clusen, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Alaska program, said. “It will go where the currents and the wind take it. So simply by keeping the oil drilling out of the most sensitive areas does not ensure that they will be protected.”
Clusen argued the Arctic should not be opened for any drilling, especially after Shell’s mishaps in 2012. He said allowing it would exacerbate climate change.
“A lot of soot is released in the drilling process. It’s also called black carbon. And when that lands on the snow, the ice, or even the water, it makes it darker,” Clusen said. “That means it absorbs more sunlight and that melts more of the ice.”
Environmental groups are not the only ones opposing the sale. Fifty-nine Congressional representatives sent a letter to the Interior Secretary calling to stop all new lease sales and oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. They also want an overhaul of Arctic drilling regulations.
BOEM will now review all 30 comments submitted to the agency before determining which, if any, blocks will be included in a future sale.