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Begich pushes bill to create federal coordinator for Arctic offshore drilling

Posted: April 18, 2011 - 9:11pm

ANCHORAGE — U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on Monday compared the regulatory atmosphere for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean to a whack-a-mole arcade game, where the player uses a mallet to smack down moles as they pop out of the ground.

In the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, under the Alaska Democrat’s scenario, oil companies are the players and federal agencies are the moles.

“Each time we have one mole beat down, another one pops up and derails the process,” Begich said.

Standing with representatives of Alaska oil companies who want to drill, including Shell Oil and ConocoPhillips, Begich said the answer is a federal coordinator for Arctic outer continental shelf drilling who could smooth applications through the bureaucracy.

“For too long, well before the current administration, federal agencies have erected roadblocks to that development,” Begich said.

He has introduced a bill to create an offshore drilling coordinator’s office, and said the $2 million price tag is would be than worth it if Alaska’s vast resources are tapped.

“This office would have the authority to work across agencies causing Alaska so much heartburn today — the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Interior Department,” Begich said.

The measure would also have an effect on permit appeals. Short of the U.S. Supreme Court, the bill would require expedited rulings to challenges of permits and move jurisdiction to the federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby endorsed the measure.

“The legislation that the senator is proposing today could go a long way to address some of the regulatory challenges facing responsible offshore development in Alaska,” Slaiby said.

America needs energy from Alaska waters and Alaskans need the jobs from offshore petroleum development, Begich said. Federal regulators estimate Arctic waters hold 26 million barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“For too long, well before the current administration, federal agencies have erected roadblocks to that development,” Begich said.

What Begich called roadblocks, others have called precautions.

Environmental and Alaska Native groups contend the oil industry has not demonstrated the ability to clean up an oil spill in ice-choked waters.

Drilling critics say too little is known about the species that live there, which already are being affected by global warming and less summer sea ice, or how seismic tests and other drilling activity will affect them.

Even in the window of ice-free months, conditions can be brutal off Alaska’s northeast and northern shore. The nearest Coast Guard base is more than 1,000 miles away from lease areas and the northern Alaska coast lacks deep-water ports and major runways near most drilling sites.

In the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico spill, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department would use “utmost caution” in future drilling lease sales in Arctic Ocean waters.

Begich said the current system is not working. Shell has spent more than $3 billion for the opportunity to drill, he said.

“Just when it appeared the development had a green light a few weeks ago, an internal EPA environmental appeals board sent the air quality back to the drawing board,” he said.

Begich said the offshore oil and gas industry grew up in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The process there with the same oil companies and the same agencies works much better,” he said.

His legislation, he said, would allow permit appeals.

“It does recognize America needs this energy and the issues surrounding it should be resolved quickly,” he said.

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