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Begich Cites Progress on Efforts to Streamline Permitting in the Arctic

Will Stay Vigilant on Balancing Exploration and Subsistence Resources

Senator Mark Begich today welcomed a federal announcement which could result in increased oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic in coming years, creating more jobs for Alaskans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for oil and gas activities in the Arctic, which doubles the number of exploratory operations permitted in each of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

“This is real progress,” said Sen. Begich. “The fact that NOAA heard what the delegation and I had to say, worked with other federal agencies, and came back with an expanded document shows that the Interagency Working Group is really beginning to understand Alaska. Having said that, it’s a big document, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us to ensure all agencies and stakeholders are working together.  We need to make sure to balance responsible offshore oil and gas development with protection for the subsistence resources that have sustained North Slope residents for centuries.”

The supplement comes more than a year after NOAA’s original draft EIS for its operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which drew criticism from Alaska’s congressional delegation and industry for its narrow scope.  The original draft EIS considered a maximum of two exploratory operations per planning area in the Arctic Ocean.  The Chukchi and Beaufort seas are each considered a separate planning area.

“I have a lot of questions about how NOAA is working with Interior Department agencies to coordinate timing and spatial restrictions on development.  I’ll be watching to make sure this isn’t a bait and switch.  Both the volume of oil and value of the subsistence resources at stake and demand our best efforts.”

ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil all hold active leases in the Chukchi, so the limitation to two operations was clearly a problem and the Alaska delegation immediately pressured NOAA to expand the scope of what the EIS covers. Senator Begich, as chairman of the Senate oceans subcommittee overseeing NOAA, also pushed the agency to work with the Interagency Working Group for Alaska, a consortium of federal agencies organized by President Obama to work together to streamline permitting for oil and gas development in the Arctic.

NOAA is responsible for enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act in U.S. waters, and companies engaged in drilling activities must apply for permits each year to explain how they will mitigate impacts from operations, generally noise, on marine mammals in the area. The EIS is the scientific underpinning for the permits, called Incidental Harassment Authorizations or IHAs.

Today’s Supplemental EIS starts a 60-day public comment period. After that, the final EIS will be released followed by another public comment period. The entire process may wrap up by the end of the year, which means it would apply to drilling operations in 2014 and beyond.  The supplemental draft EIS is available at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/arctic.htm

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