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U.S. Opens More of Arctic and Gulf for Offshore Drilling

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An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photograph by KM&G-Morris/Flickr)

The U.S. has opened more offshore areas to oil drilling — including parts of the controversial Alaska Arctic frontier — in the Obama administration’s push to further reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The plan, released by the Department of Interior, allows the leasing of 12 areas in the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, and three of the coast of Alaska, including the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Cook Inlet Planning Areas, between 2012 and 2017.

Drilling off the Alaskan coast has been hotly contested by environmentalists because of concerns about sensitive environmental areas and the impact on Native Alaskans who rely on those areas for food and clothing.

Because of that, the government says it’s using a targeted approach, opening some areas but placing a 25-mile buffer area near the coast of the Chukchi, and subsistence whaling areas in the Beaufort near Barrow and Kaktovik, Alaska.

Areas that the U.S. plans to lease have the “greatest resource potential while minimizing possible conflicts,” said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Tommy Beaudreau in a statement.

“Put simply, this program opens the vast majority of known offshore oil and gas resources for development over the next five years and includes a cautious but forward-looking leasing strategy for the Alaska Arctic,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

U.S. oil fields have seen a surge in production in recent years, thanks to new production from shale oil beneath the Great Plains. President Barack Obama noted in his State of the Union address this year that U.S. dependence on foreign oil was lower in 2011 than any of the past 16 years.

But many offshore leases were held back as the administration evaluated safety measures to prevent another disaster like that of Deepwater Horizon. A report card issued in April by members of a national commission that Obama had assembled to review offshore drilling safety found that, though much had been done to improve safeguards and regulations, action from Congress was sorely lacking.

Though welcomed by some, the new leasing strategy was met with criticism from several different sides.

“The plan is too aggressive, too broad and too rushed,” Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a blog post. “We believe an array of critical safety and environmental issues must be addressed first before America puts more coastal areas at risk.” She said the U.S. should be focused on promoting renewable energy sources instead of allowing oil and gas drilling.

“Currently there is no demonstrated ability to clean up oil in icy Arctic Ocean conditions. A major spill in the Arctic Ocean would make responding to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster look easy,” said Taldi Walter, the National Audubon Society’s assistant director of government relations, in a release. “Moreover, the Arctic Ocean is one of the least-understood ecosystems on the planet.”

Still, some Republican politicians said the plan was too restrictive.

“Today, the Obama Administration has announced a bleak future for American energy production by keeping 85 percent of America’s offshore areas under lock and key and refusing to open any new areas to drilling,” said Doc Hastings, Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, reported Reuters.

In Virginia, politicians from both parties complained about the state’s exclusion from the five-year plan.

“Energy exploration . . . would boost domestic energy production, while benefiting the commonwealth’s economy,” said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

In Alaska, though, most officials welcomed the strategy.

“For over three years, my message to the Obama administration is that as America’s energy storehouse, Alaska can and should responsibly supply a significant portion of our country’s energy needs,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), according to the LA Times.

Meanwhile, Shell* already has two drilling rigs on the way to Alaska, making it the first company to explore the state’s offshore resources. The departure of the rigs from Seattle this week comes after years of legal and regulatory battles.

Shell plans to have more than 20 ships, rigs and support vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer, reports the Anchorage Daily News. The company, which successfully tested a new spill containment system this week, appears on track to get the well-specific permits it needs to begin drilling in July.

* Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.