Gov. Frank Murkowski said Wednesday he will open lease sales in state waters offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Citing frustration with what he calls "America's extreme environmental community," the former U.S. senator said he will do what he can as governor to spur Arctic oil development.
"While the U.S. House and Senate remain gridlocked over opening ANWR for oil development, I am not burdened by that process," said Murkowski, who spent 22 years in the Senate before becoming governor in 2002.
The oil and gas lease sales are planned for October. State waters extend out 3 miles in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
It is unclear how much of the area will be leased, but the two areas amount to about 1.2 million acres. About 670,000 acres of submerged lands lie off the coast of NPR-A and 350,000 acres are off the coast of ANWR.
The lease sales, scheduled for October, could lead to oil production wells to offset the nation's dependence on foreign oil, Murkowski said.
In addition, environmental risks associated with offshore drilling could force opposition groups to soften their intractable position against drilling in ANWR, Murkowski said.
"It seems like a kind of foolish attempt at brinksmanship on the part of Gov. Murkowski," said Matthew Niemerski, spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife.
Some areas offshore of NPR-A have been leased and are producing oil, Murkowski said. These include the Northstar, Point McIntyre and Endicott fields.
The lease sales could affect areas set aside by the state to protect whales, which are still hunted by Alaska Natives.
Current offshore drilling activity already has forced hunters to go farther out to sea for their whale hunts, said state Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, whose district spans the federal areas.
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission has complained that hunters have had to go as far as 15 miles further out to sea to find whales as a result of increased shipping activity and seismic work associated with oil exploration, Olson said.
The commission could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
"This obviously puts whalers and their crews in more danger if you got to go an extra 15 miles with inclement seas and the ice floes," Olson said.
Murkowski said he is sensitive to concerns of potential harm caused to Alaska Native subsistence whaling and is willing to mitigate impact on whales.
Murkowski said he ordered Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin to work with North Slope communities.
But the lease sales raise other problems for exploration companies that could not ship their oil overland through the two federal areas, said oil consultant Ken Boyd.
"Whether a company would chose to take that kind of risk when they have lots of other options around the world, I don't know," Boyd said.
Murkowski was in Washington, D.C., to speak to the American Gas Association.
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