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Vol. 18, No. 36 Week of September 08, 2013
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Jewell says Interior will facilitate Arctic energy development if safe

During a Sept. 3 press conference towards the end of a visit to Alaska Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told journalists that the Department of the Interior is facilitating oil and gas development to help meet the country’s energy needs, but that the agency also needs to ensure that development is carried out safely. And the particular characteristics of the Arctic region require different safety-related rules and regulations from elsewhere, she said.

“The oil industry, the Department of the Interior, the State of Alaska and the people of Alaska want to ensure that any development of offshore or onshore resources is done in a safe and responsible way,” Jewell said.

New regulations

The Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement, a division of the Interior Department, has previously said that it is in the process of developing new regulations for offshore oil and gas development on the Arctic outer continental shelf, with a draft version of these regulations likely to be published for public review towards the end of this year.

Jewell said that this release of these “baseline standards” would give companies an opportunity to determine if they want to conduct any offshore operations in the summer of 2014. It will be up to the companies to determine whether they are ready to move ahead and whether they can meet those standards, she said.

“I have not heard from any companies an urgency to go forward until they’re ready and they’re confident they can do it in a safe and responsible way,” Jewell said. Jewell also commented that Interior encourages companies involved in Arctic oil and gas exploration and development to work collaboratively, to reduce the cost of required safety measures and to achieve a higher level of safety for all companies.

Results from oil and gas lease sales have demonstrated a tremendous interest in the Arctic by oil companies, with that interest driven by the region’s tremendous oil and gas potential, Jewell said. But it is up to the companies to determine what development make best sense for them — the companies will prioritize their investments according to where they can achieve their highest returns, she said.

Understanding of Alaska

Jewell said that during a previous career as a banker she had conducted business in Alaska over many years and that she understands many of the issues impacting the state.

“From small villages like I was in yesterday, in Kaktovik, to Anchorage and Juneau, this is a state of extremes in many, many dimensions,” she said.

Jewell said that during her current visit to Alaska she had met with oil and gas industry leaders and with people from Native communities. People in Barrow, the town at the extreme northwestern end of the North Slope, had commented to her about issues that they are facing relating to oil and gas development and about their concerns about subsistence hunting. Barrow residents also commented on the importance of oil and gas development to their community she said.

ANWR

Asked about the environmental impact statement, or EIS, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing for a new management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Jewell said that Fish and Wildlife is still assessing the hundreds of thousands of comments that the agency received on the draft version of the EIS. One alternative documented in that draft would involve the designation of the coastal plain of the refuge as a wilderness area. Jewell commented that any change of land designation in the refuge would require approval by the U.S. Congress. With the existing plan being 20 years old, a new plan will provide a path forward for managing the refuge in the future, Jewell said.

USGS projects

During the press conference Jewell particularly emphasized two U.S. Geological Survey projects: the publication by the survey of a new series of topographic maps of Alaska; and the Alaska Climate Science Center, a collaboration between the survey and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The new topographic maps supersede the existing 50-year-old maps of the state, significantly increasing the map scale and using new technology to dramatically increase the amount of detail on the maps, Jewell said. This is a great illustration of how federal agencies can work alongside the state in a “very, very important initiative for Alaska,” she said.

According to a news release from the U.S. Geological Survey more than 400 new Alaska maps are now available from the survey’s website at nationalmap.gov. Eventually the survey will publish more than 11,000 new maps covering the entire state, the survey says. The on-line maps incorporate multiple layers, including satellite imagery, roads, important buildings and significant boundaries, with the ability to turn individual layers on and off, the survey says.

Climate Science Center

The Alaska Climate Science Center, the first of eight such centers being established across the country as part of President Obama’s climate action plan, involves collaborative work by scientists from a variety of federal, state and academic institutions to understand what is really happening on the ground in terms of climate change, Jewell said. In Alaska, climate change is impacting Native subsistence activities, transportation and resource development. She said that she had observed at first hand the climate-change-induced coastal erosion near Teshekpuk Lake on the North Slope and that residents of Kaktovik, the village on the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, told her about their concerns about changes in the caribou herd and in the polar bear population.

Jewell also commented that the U.S. Geological Survey has been using some legacy oil wells on the North Slope to monitor temperature changes in the permafrost.

“The more I get on the ground in Department of Interior lands, the more I see the impact of climate change on our resources and the more I understand the role that we play in mitigating those impacts, (and) the importance of the president’s climate action plan,” Jewell said.

—Alan Bailey



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