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Begich warns loss of Coastal Management Program could harm chances for arctic oil exploration

Posted: May 31, 2011 - 9:05pm

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is warning Alaska leaders that if they let the state’s Coastal Management program die at the end of the month, it could hurt offshore oil and gas development in the arctic.

Begich, on the Alaska Public Radio Network’s Talk of Alaska program Tuesday, said he sent Gov. Sean Parnell and other leaders a letter last week warning of the consequences of letting Coastal Management expire.

“Their inaction on coastal zone management has put oil exploration in the arctic at risk,” Begich said.

Authorization for the state’s Coastal Management program expires at the end of June, but the issue got caught up in contentious budget battles at the end of the regular legislative session and a subsequent special session and it wasn’t renewed.

Negotiations on a second special session limited only to the coastal issues fell apart over the weekend. Now, it is too late for Parnell to call a session before the program ends and top legislators appear unwilling to do so. Special sessions called by the governor require 30 days notice.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, told the Associated Press Tuesday the program appears “effectively dead.”

Begich, however, said they may not realize how valuable the program is, especially to Alaska’s hopes for petroleum development in the arctic and a crucial deepwater port.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think they knew,” he said.

Alaska needs a deepwater port in the arctic, for both development and spill response, he said. And a deepwater port has to be in federal waters.

“You can’t do a deepwater port in state waters, it’s too shallow,” he said. State waters extend three miles from shore, beyond that is federal jurisdiction.

But under current federal law, Begich said, “you can’t put a deepwater port that deals with oil and gas in federal waters unless the adjacent state has a coastal management plan.”

Begich said he sent Parnell and legislators a letter raising his concerns about letting the program expire last week, but over the weekend the decision was made not to have a special session that had been tentatively planned for yesterday and today.

Without the Coastal Management program “oil and gas operators will not have the option to develop an offshore deepwater port, which could significantly impair their operations,” Begich’s letter said.

Begich said several of those receiving his letter contacted his office and expressed surprise the requirement existed.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said it was new information to her.

“I didn’t realize the deepwater port language was there,” she said Tuesday.

Kerttula has been among those urging a special session to salvage the program, which she once represented as an assistant attorney general in the Department of Law.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Begich said that letting Coastal Management expire would also negate work that’s been done to convince the Obama administration of the importance of offshore oil development in Alaska.

“I don’t know what politics were going on in Juneau, what the governor was up to, and these other guys, but they have now put at great risk the ability to do development in the arctic,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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