Interior Secretary signs order aiming to open more of the North Slope to oil leasing

Flanked by Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Bill Walker, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks to reporters after signing an order to promote more drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered new studies on the oil and gas potential of federal land on the North Slope, including in the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

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Zinke made the announcement at an oil and gas industry conference in Anchorage, marking a significant departure from the Obama administration’s approach to resource development in Alaska.

“The President has now declared — and thank you Donald J. Trump  — that the war on North American energy is now over,” Zinke said.

The order also sets in motion a review of the management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), with changes aimed at providing more land for oil and gas leasing.

The oil industry’s interest in the NPR-A has increased in recent months, following several significant oil finds that were announced in and near the area.

Zinke was flanked by Alaska’s political leaders when he signed the order, including Governor Bill Walker, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young.

“Should have been done a long time ago,” Young said. “This is an exciting thing for Alaska.”

During a press conference, Zinke told reporters that the federal government plans on partnering with the oil industry to assess ANWR’s oil potential. The last federal assessment was done in 1998.

“I think it’s in the best interest of our country to at least know what our assets are,” Zinke said.

Zinke claimed the order doesn’t loosen environmental protections on the North Slope.

“Nothing I signed today in any way diminishes or relaxes the environmental protections that are necessary,” Zinke said. “And we understand that it’s sensitive area up there. We understand that people have made their living up there, subsistence, for generations and will in generations to come.”

Alli Harvey of the Sierra Club in Anchorage said they’ve been bracing for the order since President Trump got elected. Harvey said the secretary’s statement is bold, but to carry it out he’ll get a lot of pushback from people who want to preserve treasured areas of the Arctic.

“I’m not going to understate what the statements mean. They do have their sights on opening this place up and we are going to match that. The American people have spoken before and they’ll continue to speak and say that it’s not an OK place to drill,” Harvey said.
Lois Epstein with the Wilderness Society in Anchorage added that her group believes drilling isn’t allowed in certain parts of the NPR-A for a reason.

“From our perspective, given how valuable the lands are that are off limits, there’s no reason we should be opening up those areas because we have plenty of less sensitive places to be drilling,” Epstein said.

Any move to allow drilling in ANWR must go through Congress, and multiple attempts to do so in the past 30 years have been unsuccessful.

Zinke did not make clear whether the reassessment would require work on the ground. Drilling opponents say that would require congressional approval, too.

During the press conference, Zinke did not weigh in on President Trump’s decision on whether the U.S. should exit the international Paris Agreement to address climate change, which the President is expected to make public tomorrow.

“I have yet to read what the actual Paris agreement is,” Zinke said. “So before I make an opinion, I want to sit down and read it.”

Reporter Liz Ruskin contributed to this report.