by Chris Klint
12:27 PM AKDT, June 16, 2011
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday that the federal government would hold annual lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska starting this year, under an accelerated plan questioned by environmentalists.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates thatNPR-A, west of Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, contains about 896 million barrels of undiscovered oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas.
Salazar also provided further detail Thursday on how oil producers in the Gulf of Mexico could obtain one-year extensions on their leases after last year’s temporary suspension of deepwater drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“As part of President Obama’s comprehensive energy strategy, Interior is moving ahead with these concrete steps to continue to expand responsible and safe domestic oil production,” Salazar said in a statement.
According to Salazar, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management will publish a notice in the Federal Register in the near future announcing a 30-day period in which interested parties may nominate or comment on the available NPR-A tracts.
BLM has conducted six NPR-A lease sales since 2008, each about two years apart, and currently administers about 191 federal oil and gas leases in the reserve.
Salazar's announcement came as the House Resources Committee took testimony in Washington, D.C. on the proposed NPR-A Access Act, which would require annual lease sales in the reserve and streamline the federal permitting process for drilling there.
The National Audubon Society blasted the proposed legislation, saying it would threaten congressionally recognized special areas within the reserve like Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok River Uplands, as well as the habitat of area animal populations.
“The legislative proposal under consideration today would completely abandon balance, compel oil and gas leasing in areas irrespective of their exceptional biological value or sensitivity,” said Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s policy director. “It would effectively turn over America’s Arctic to the oil industry.”
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski also testified before the committee Thursday, saying the biggest obstacle to oil and gas development was not the availability of leases but the permitting process.
“We have a permitting problem, not just a leasing problem,” Murkowski said. “If every time a leaseholder wants to produce from the NPR-A, it requires congressional hearings and years of involvement from this many elected officials, we will not be in much better position next time.”
Murkowski also questioned the Geological Survey’s estimates of oil and gas in the reserve, which she said didn’t consider promising areas for development, new field data or input from the State of Alaska.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that Myers and Murkowski testified Thursday about the NPR-A Access Act, not the Interior Department's announcement.
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