Alaskans want Arctic drilling suspension lifted

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ANCHORAGE - With the Tuesday lifting of the six-month moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska officials say it's also time to lift a suspension on shallow-water drilling in Arctic waters.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was ending the deep-water drilling moratorium imposed in April following the BP deep-water oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Salazar said at the time he was imposing a drilling suspension on drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said Tuesday that the Arctic suspension also should be lifted.

"If Secretary Salazar can lift the moratorium for wells in 5,000 feet of water, he should be able to do so for a shallow water well in the Beaufort Sea," Parnell said.

Salazar's decision blocked plans by Shell Oil to drill exploratory wells this year in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northwest coast, and the Beaufort Sea off the north coast, during the short open water season.

Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said last week the company needs a decision by December to move forward with its 2011 plans, which involve moving north a drilling ship and a small fleet of support vessels, including spill response boats. Slaiby said Shell will limit its 2011 plans to exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea.

Parnell said the 2011 drilling season in Alaska is at stake and the industry needs regulatory certainty.

The stakes are high for drilling in Alaska, which receives upward of 90 percent of its general fund revenue from the petroleum industry and where North Slope reserves have diminished.

Salazar has given no timetable for a decision. Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Tuesday by e-mail that the secretary is moving cautiously.

"Secretary Salazar believes we need to continue to take a cautious approach in the Arctic that is guided by science and the voices of North Slope communities," she said.

The state last month sued to overturn what Parnell and Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan called an illegal federal moratorium on offshore drilling on Alaska's outer continental shelf. State attorneys Tuesday filed a request for expedited consideration.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Tuesday he was frustrated that Salazar's announcement on deep-water drilling did not mention Alaska.

"Because of our short drilling season and the complexity of getting equipment in place, Alaska operators need certainty about what development they can do when," he said.

Environmental and some Alaska Native groups bitterly oppose drilling in Arctic waters, which lack a deep-water port and other infrastructure that could be useful for cleanup of a major spill.

The nearest Coast Guard base is more than 1,000 miles away in Kodiak and spill cleanup could be slowed by notorious Arctic coast weather, ice and darkness.

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