WASHINGTON – The federal government is poised to permit oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean as part of the Obama administration’s new “targeted leasing” program, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced Tuesday.
“I think it’s highly likely that permits will be issued with the kind of oversight I’m very comfortable with,” Salazar, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado and state attorney general, told reporters in a conference call.
Salazar’s plan calls for approving two or three oil wells within the next five years in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which are east and north of Alaska. He did not specify the amount of oil likely to be extracted from the regions, although some experts estimate the figure could be as large as 1 million barrels of oil per day.
While Salazar warned that the Interior Department’s decision is not yet final, he reaffirmed that oil and natural gas companies were likely to win approval despite the opposition of environmental organizations. “We will probably be sued by environmental groups – we’re sued all the time – but expect we will prevail as have before with the Arctic,” he said.
In addition to the likely new permits, Salazar said the department will develop and enforce “the closest oversight and most rigorous safety standards ever implemented,” including an on-site inspector 24 hours a day. His department expects to release details of its 2012-2017 program later this week, he added.
Congressional reaction to the Obama administration’s plan was tentative. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver), a member of the House Energy Committee, did not issue a statement through her office.
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma), also a member of the energy committee, said in an interview he hopes the administration will persevere through court delays. “I’m encouraged by what Secretary Salazar had to say, but the problem is we have encouraging signs every step of the way and then the environmental approval board keeps blocking these plans. So while the talking points are encouraging, the reality is more and more delays,” he said, noting that Shell Oil applied for an oil permit seven years ago.
The Sierra Club opposes oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, warning that unless the Obama administration “chills the drills,” it will damage the Arctic region’s environment.