Alaska in Brief

Biden adminstration offshore oil plan envisions a single Cook Inlet sale

By: - July 4, 2022 5:00 am
Cook Inlet is viewed from the Kenai shoreline on Aug. 14, 2018. Redoubt Volcano looms in the distance. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Cook Inlet is viewed from the Kenai shoreline on Aug. 14, 2018. Redoubt Volcano looms in the distance. The Biden administration’s proposed five-year offshore oil leasing program envisions a 2026 sale in federal waters in the northern part of the inlet. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Biden administration would hold one oil and gas lease sale in federal waters of Cook Inlet in the coming years, according to a new five-year plan released Friday by the Department of the Interior.

The proposed 2023-2028 plan is similar to the just-ended Obama administration five-year plan, with 10 potential Gulf of Mexico lease sales, the single Cook Inlet sale and no sales off the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

Haaland asked the public to weigh in on the Bureau of Ocean Energy plan, which she said is preliminary and “not a decision to issue specific leases or to authorize any drilling or development.”

“From Day One, President Biden and I have made clear our commitment to transition to a clean energy economy. Today, we put forward an opportunity for the American people to consider and provide input on the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The time for the public to weigh in on our future is now,” she said in the statement.

The Cook Inlet lease sale, the sole Alaska sale, would be confined to the northern waters in federal territory, the area closest to existing infrastructure. It would be held in 2026, according to the proposal.

Release of the proposed plan is part of a public process. Before the plan is finalized, it must go through public review, including Federal Register notices, public hearings and a final agency review.

One Alaska environmental group blasted the plan for a Cook Inlet lease sale.

“This decision is incredibly disappointing in the face of ongoing climate impacts that are already being deeply felt by our community around Alaska,” Liz Mering, advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper, said in a statement. “Alaskans have worked to ensure that Lower Cook Inlet remains this incredible place for our fisheries and tourism industry, which support a thriving local economy. Thirty-three years after the horrific Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaskans still remember and recognize the risk of more oil fouling our waters, killing our fish and hurting Alaskans.”

A statue of British explorer James Cook, seen on May 26, overlooks the inlet that bears his name. The Captain Cook statue is in Resolution Park in downtown Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A statue of British explorer James Cook, seen on May 26, overlooks the inlet that bears his name. The Captain Cook statue is in Resolution Park in downtown Anchorage. The Anchorage area of the inlet is state territory. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A previous five-year leasing plan proposed by the Trump administration in 2018 would have opened nearly all Alaska federal offshore areas to oil leasing. That included areas of the Arctic — the remote Chukchi Sea, where a multibillion-dollar Shell program was abandoned in 2015, and the Beaufort Sea. Such sales would have contradicted an action by President Obama in December of 2016 that removed all of the Chukchi and most of the Beaufort from the leasing program. Among the 19 lease sales proposed in the Trump plan were auctions in regions where there has been virtually no industry interest, including the Bering Sea and the waters off the Kodiak Island Archipelago, regions known for their rich commercial fisheries.

That Trump plan never went into effect. It was struck down in 2019 by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason of Alaska, who ruled that it illegally overturned leasing bans in the Chukchi and in protected parts of the Beaufort, as well as along the Atlantic Coast. The ruling left the Obama administration plan in effect.

Alaska politicians slammed that decision; Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a statement, claimed the administration’s statement about low industry interest was false. “Joe Biden, Gina McCarthy, and the ultra-left members of this administration are blatantly lying to the American people,” Sullivan said in a statement that cited a top environmental official in the administration.

However, a subsequent state lease sale for Cook Inlet territory gave support to the idea of little industry interest in exploring the basin. Only two bids were submitted in the annual Alaska Division of Oil and Gas sale for state territory in the Cook Inlet basin held on May 25.

There were similar paltry showings in Cook Inlet lease sales held by the state in recent years. Each annual lease sale from 2015 to this year has drawn no more than eight bids, according to division records. Only three bids were received in the 2019 and 2020 sales, and the 2016 sale generated no bids.

Poor industry interest in federal waters of Cook Inlet is a pattern over the past decades. A 2004 lease sale drew no bids, according to BOEM records. Subsequent federal Cook Inlet lease sales were canceled in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015 for lack of industry interest, according to BOEM. A 2017 lease sale drew 14 bids, all from Hilcorp Alaska LLC, the dominant operator in Cook Inlet. The leases were awarded to Hilcorp, but BOEM said it has not received a completed exploration plan for any of those.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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