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Begich Urges Careful Oil and Gas Development in Off-Shore Alaska Waters

Submits 6-Page Letter on Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Development

Alaska's off-shore regions hold enormous oil and gas resources which should be carefully developed to fuel America and help ensure our nation's energy security, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said in comments delivered today on the proposed outer continental shelf (OCS) leasing program under consideration by the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service.

The OCS also is home to fish and wildlife which provide jobs for Alaskans and subsistence food for Arctic residents, all of which are being affected by climate change in the North. As a result, any off-shore development must be based on sound science instead of politics, and the concerns of local residents must be incorporated in any development plans, Begich said

"Most Alaskans favor prudent development of our OCS resources, particularly when they receive their fair share of the proceeds," Begich wrote. "Sound science and a process that values the wisdom of local voices can safely guide this development. The economic and strategic security of our nation requires that we policy makers make these decisions so they were not dependent on the whims of the federal court system."

At issue is the proposed OCS oil and gas leasing program for 2010-2015 proposed by the Department of Interior. Today is the deadline for public comments on the program, which calls for oil and gas development in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and Bristol Bay.

Begich notes that for more than a quarter century, Alaska has served as America's energy storehouse, producing 15 billion barrels of oil from Prudhoe Bay and another billion barrels of oil and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from Cook Inlet. Massive oil and natural gas reserves are believed to lie beneath the Alaska OCS, with the MMS mean estimate of technically recoverable reserves of nearly 27 billion barrels of oil in the region.

At the same time, the area contains natural resources that support a subsistence economy and a commercial fishing fleet that supplies 62 percent of America's domestic catch.  "The challenge facing the MMS and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is maintaining a careful balance between the need to develop Alaska's energy resources which create jobs for Alaskans and energy for our nation, while protecting Alaska's environment," Begich wrote.

The senator notes that climate change is affecting access to Alaska's natural resources and presenting new challenges to protection of the Arctic. He recently introduced seven bills dealing with Arctic development, which all seek a balance between resource development and protection of the changing Arctic.

Begich said any proceeds from offshore development should be shared with the Alaskans directly affected by it.

"Just as residents of the Louisiana and other Gulf states profit from development in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Alaskans are no less worthy, particularly while they arguably bear greater risks," he said. "Alaska has not received its fair share of OCS revenues under the law passed by Congress in 2006. If Alaska had been included in that legislation, the state would have received more than $900 million in revenues that could have helped coastal communities, spurred more investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency and helped develop critical infrastructure."

To remedy this disparity, Begich introduced Senate Bill 1560, the Alaska Adjacent Zone Revenue Sharing Act, which establishes a revenue sharing regime that in addition to providing for the broader demands of development on state government, respects the needs of Alaska communities adjacent to offshore development and the unique needs of the indigenous peoples who reside there.

Begich said he is especially concerned about oil and gas development in Bristol Bay, home of one of the world's most productive fisheries.

"In Bristol Bay, we have been through this process before.  Leases in the North Aleutian Basin were sold in 1985, blocked by litigation until 1988, subject to a congressional moratorium beginning in 1989 and the leases were eventually bought back by the federal government in 1995. That was hardly a productive exercise, and now we apparently stand ready to repeat it," he wrote. "I greatly appreciate Secretary Salazar's March visit to Dillingham. Residents of small Alaska communities rarely receive attention from federal policymakers who so keenly affect their daily lives."

As the federal government makes final decisions about OCS development, they must be based on sound science and by incorporating the concerns of local residents, he said.

"One critical step in moving forward toward development should be establishment of a directed stream of funding for scientific research and monitoring in the Arctic," Begich wrote. His legislation, S. 1562, the Arctic Ocean Research and Science Policy Review Act of 2009, proposes to synthesize existing information, identify data gaps, and set up a basic monitoring system to provide data as the region inevitably changes over time.

By law, a proposed final program must sit before Congress and the President for at least 60 days before the Secretary can approve a final program. Additionally, an Environmental Impact Statement on the program will be prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). When those processes are complete, MMS may begin the plans for each lease sale.  The Bush Administration released this Draft Proposed Plan a full three years early; the current 5 year plan expires in 2012.

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