Withdrawal of Areas from Oil and Gas Leasing Regions
Earlier this year, President Obama announced the withdrawal of five zones in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea oil and gas leasing regions, totaling 9.8 million acres. These include the Barrow and Kaktovik Whaling Areas in the Beaufort Seas, and the Hanna Shoal and Subsistence Areas and 25-mile buffer zone in the Chukchi Sea. The protections were announced alongside and appear as deferrals in the draft 2017–2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program, published on January 29.
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Some of these areas had previously been excluded from leasing plans by both Democratic and Republican Administrations, and others are newly exempted. Areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea regions and Cook Inlet region are identified for potential sale in the draft Proposed Program.
Proposal to Designate Millions of Acres as Protected Wilderness
President Obama also proposed to designate 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as wilderness land, including its coastal plain. A designation as wilderness would close the area to oil and gas exploration and development in a more permanent manner. This proposal tracks, as discussed in our previous post, a long-observed Presidential tendency to restrict access to public lands to memorialize their environmental legacy during their final years in office. It also follows the December 16 Presidential Memorandum closing off the Bristol Bay from oil and gas development.
This move challenges Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and other Republicans, who have been trying for decades to open up the Refuge to oil exploration. Congress, however, also holds the power to open the area up to fossil fuel drilling activity. Its furthest-reaching effort was vetoed by President Clinton in 1995.
While the Department of the Interior proposal resulted in a number of headlines, only Congress has the authority to make wilderness designations, and it is unlikely that Republican lawmakers will approve the proposal.
Republicans have come out in force to decry the proposal, noting that it would be the largest designation of wilderness in 50 years. Sen. Murkowski introduced amendments to the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would block the coastal plain from being classified as wildness, and would remove protections if Congress fails to act on the wilderness proposal within one year.
Governor Bill Walker of Alaska also shunned the plan, explaining that Alaska’s economy was already suffering at the hands of depressed gas prices, and that expanding oil and gas drilling access on state-owned lands would potentially provide a needed boost to local economies.