Alaska’s leaders got more than they bargained for from Interior’s offshore drilling proposal

Cook Inlet oil platforms are visible from shore on Dec. 13, 2016 near Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Trump administration recently proposed a vast expansion of federal waters available for oil development. Many U.S. states were not pleased — states like California, Oregon and Florida don’t want oil development off their coastlines.

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Alaska is a different story. Alaska’s leaders got what they wanted in the plan — and then some. Now the question is: will Alaska ask the Trump administration to cut back?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s offshore oil leasing proposal has quickly evolved into a political hot-potato. Only five days after Zinke proposed making over 90 percent of federal waters available for oil leasing, he removed Florida from the plan, following objections from its Republican governor, Rick Scott. Then came the political firestorm, from Democratic leaders of states like Virginia and Oregon, who also want to be excluded. Among other things, critics accused Zinke of political favoritism. Now, the Interior Secretary says he’ll meet with every governor — Republican and Democrat — before making a final decision.

So — where does Alaska fit in? Of course, Alaska wants offshore development. The Walker administration wants the Beaufort and Chukchi seas opened to drilling. But Zinke also proposed allowing drilling off all of Alaska’s other shores, too, except for the region around Bristol Bay. That sparked outrage from environmental groups and concerns from the fishing industry and tribes across the Bering Strait region.

When asked if the state requested all federal areas but the North Aleutian Basin to be opened for offshore oil development, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack said, “No, we didn’t make the request.”

To confirm that, the Walker administration provided a letter Mack sent to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in August. The letter specifically asks for lease sales in the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea, and Cook Inlet — but nowhere else. Mack said the state wasn’t looking at expanding oil development beyond those areas.

“We’re going to focus on the Arctic, and we think that is where the real opportunity sits,” Mack said.

So will Walker ask Zinke to remove areas besides Cook Inlet and the Arctic from the final offshore plan? The Governor’s office hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment on that.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, however, has already taken a stand on whether every offshore area Interior proposed for Alaska should be included in the final plan.

“Are all of these areas, areas that should move forward? No. I’ll just say that right out — no,” Murkowski said.

But Murkowski wasn’t criticizing Zinke. She stressed that this is just a proposal that can be winnowed down in the future — and she likes this proposal a lot more than what the Obama administration rolled out.

“I think for some it was a little bit shocking because it was like, ‘whoa, he’s just opened up everything!’ The Secretary didn’t open up anything,” Murkowski said. “What he did was put a draft out there, saying, ‘This is the universe that we’re talking about.’”

Murkowski wants — and expects — that universe to shrink. As long as it includes offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic and Cook Inlet, Zinke can expect continued support for his plan from both Murkowski and the Walker administration.

Alaska Public Media Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin contributed to this story.