Administration renews vow to speed up Alaska oil leases

McClatchy NewspapersJune 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday reiterated its commitment to speeding up lease sales and possible oil production in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's North Slope.

But the announcement from the Interior Department, which followed on the heels of a similar pledge by President Barack Obama last month, wasn't enough for Alaska's Rep. Don Young and other Republicans in the House of Representatives, who also held a hearing Thursday about the petroleum reserve's prospects.

Led by Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, who visited the reserve last week and sponsored legislation to speed up permitting there, the Republicans complained that delays in federal permitting had held up the roads, bridges and pipelines needed to transport oil from the reserve.

"It's unacceptable that the federal government is the obstacle to harnessing this energy — American energy," Hastings said Thursday at the House Natural Resources Committee's Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. Hastings is the chairman of the full Natural Resources Committee.

The federal Bureau of Land Management disagreed, saying Hastings' legislation is unnecessary. Mike Pool, the deputy director of the agency, announced Thursday at the hearing that the agency is calling on the public — in particular the oil and gas industry — to recommend certain tracts they'd like to see made available in a lease sale scheduled for December.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nearby state waters and the petroleum reserve — on Alaska's North Slope west of Prudhoe Bay — contain 896 million barrels of oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also testified at the hearing, saying that the obstacle wasn't the availability of leases but the inability of companies to navigate the permitting process in a timely manner.

"We have a permitting problem, not just a leasing problem," the Alaska Republican said. "If every time a leaseholder wants to produce from the NPRA it requires congressional hearings and years of involvement from this many elected officials, we will not be in much better position next time."

Young singled out a favorite target of House Republicans: the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The EPA is the real snot on the handkerchief," he said.

Both were referring to the holdup in permitting a bridge that would carry oil from the petroleum reserve through a pipeline over the Colville River. The bridge, which has encountered permitting problems with the Army Corps of Engineers, is seen as the key to tapping additional reserves in the area.

Both Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Murkowski have spoken with Obama about the Alaska reserve, as well as about Shell's efforts to proceed with its plans to drill offshore in the Arctic. On Thursday, Begich said he was pleased to see the Obama administration "making good on its commitment to increasing domestic energy production on public lands, including in Alaska."

But the administration still needs to demonstrate a commitment to removing the roadblocks that are preventing development, Begich said in a statement.

The president's announcement last month called for a new team to coordinate work on Alaska drilling permits, a move that's expected to streamline projects such as Shell's.

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