WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on federal agencies to better coordinate oil and gas permitting and other regulatory oversight as the industry looks to expand operations in the Arctic and as environmentalists ramp up their opposition.
The White House said a federal working group, which will be overseen by deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, will simplify oil and gas decision-making in Alaska by bringing together federal agencies to collaborate as they evaluate permits and environmental reviews.
The working group's formation comes partly in response to criticism about delays in federal air quality and construction permits both onshore and offshore in the Arctic.
"Time will tell if this working group helps streamline and expedite the process, as I hope it will, or if it adds another level of bureaucracy and red tape," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "In the meantime, I commend the president for taking a positive step in the right direction."
The working group also comes as a coalition of 19 environmental groups announced plans this week to uniformly oppose offshore drilling in the Arctic. The coalition — which includes the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Greenpeace and the Ocean Conservancy — said the federal government should avoid approving drilling plans until oil companies can prove they have effective cleanup plans for spills in Arctic waters.
Yet some of the organizations in the environmental coalition on Tuesday hailed the new working group, saying it was an opportunity to let science, safety and other considerations guide the decision-making process in the Arctic.
"The Arctic is a complex and fragile system," said Andrew Hartsig, the Arctic program director at the Ocean Conservancy. "The bottom line is that we still have the opportunity to do things right in Arctic waters, but only if we take the time to understand this extraordinary and fragile part of our national and natural heritage. At stake are a unique and exceptionally productive ecosystem and the subsistence way of life in Arctic coastal communities."
Hayes on Tuesday cautioned that the working group won't be a "one-stop shop" for permits.
The group is designed to ensure that decisions are made with oil spill prevention, preparedness and response in mind as the necessary infrastructure is developed to adequately support energy development in the Arctic, Hayes said Tuesday, speaking at an event about Arctic oil and gas development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Obama's executive order comes two months after he announced during one of his weekly addresses that he'll ease the way for more domestic oil and gas production, particularly in the Arctic and National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where he directed the Interior Department to conduct annual lease sales.
The president's proposal, a response in part to frustration over high gasoline prices, also addressed oil executives' criticism of the White House's domestic drilling policies. It extended drilling leases in areas of the Gulf of Mexico that were affected by a moratorium — now lifted — that took effect after the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Criticism in Alaska of the administration's energy policies has been focused on delays in two projects: air quality permits that have held up Shell's exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea, as well as a dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has delayed construction onshore of a bridge in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
State officials and the Alaska congressional delegation have met with the White House about accelerating exploration in the Arctic. So has Shell. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell also has been active in a coalition of governors pressing the federal government to more actively pursue offshore drilling in the outer continental shelf.
The working group will be overseen by the Interior Department and will include representatives from the departments of Defense, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy and Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects.
They'll be talking regularly about schedules and progress as well as sharing application project information, scientific and environmental data, and cultural and traditional knowledge, Hayes wrote Tuesday on the White House blog.
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