Obama Withdraws 9.8m Acres of Arctic Ocean

President Obama is withdrawing 9.8 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from future oil and gas lease sales. Today’s announcement comes in conjunction with the Department of Interior’s draft five-year offshore plan. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has already described it as a gut punch to Alaska’s economy. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell says the withdrawals are limited to small areas of the Beaufort, a 25-mile buffer along the Chukchi Coast and the area around the Hanna Shoal, northwest of Barrow. Except for the Hanna Shoal, Jewell says the proposed withdrawals are already off limits in the current five-year plan.

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“They already were deferredfrom oil and gas leasing. And I don’t think anybody who looks at those maps would say that that is an unreasonable amount,” she said in a call with reporters.

Alaska Congressman Don Young says the draft puts “massive portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi off limits” to leasing. Young says President Obama is treating Alaska like an “eco-theme park” to please his allies.

The off-shore plan is drawing daggers from environmentalists, too. Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups claim the plan will aggravate climate change and creates the risk of an oil spill in a region with no infrastructure to support a cleanup.

Hanna Shoal is home to a diverse range of fish species and marine mammals. That withdrawal is about 1.6 million acres, or some 300 lease blocks. Ten of those blocks there are currently leased, three  to Shell, according to a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The president’s order, though, says the rights of those leaseholders are unchanged. Jewell says the withdrawal has no affect on Shell, the only operator close to exploratory drilling in the Chukchi.

There’s nothing that we’re announcing today that impacts Shell’s plans. They have valid existing leases. We’ve been working very, very closely with them to support the activities that they want to do up there but to make sure that there done in a safe an environmentally safe way,” she said.

In a statement, Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino says the company is focused on exploring its existing leases in the Chukchi. But the company hasn’t announced whether it will restart its Arctic exploration program this summer. Shell has spent more than $6 billion so far and has asked the government to extend its leases. The earliest are set to expire in 2017.

On Sunday, the Obama administration angered Alaska officials by announcing it will seek wilderness status for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, which would preclude development. Sen. Murkowski this week called Obama and Secretary Jewell indifferent to the people of Alaska.

Jewell says she respects the senator’s passion.

“On the personal side: I worked on the (Trans-Alaska) Pipeline when I was a college student,’ Jewell said. “I have visited Alaska dozens of times. I love the state.”

Jewell is planning a trip to Kotzebue next month, to go on an Alaska Federation of Natives retrear. She says she looks forward to demonstrating her belief in balanced resource development and in listening to all sides.

“I’m committed to doing that. And I look forward to coming to the state,” she said. “And I hope I am welcomed.”

News Director Lauren Rosenthal of member station KUCB contributed to this story.