President Obama on Tuesday signed an executive order creating an interagency working group to coordinate energy development in Alaska, a move hailed by lawmakers who want to see drilling in Arctic outer continental shelf waters.
Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes will chair the group. Hayes said on the White House blog that the group will include senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the federal coordinator for an Alaska natural gas pipeline.
"We'll simplify decision-making processes by making sure that we're doing our part to collaborate as we evaluate permits and conduct rigorous environmental reviews," Hayes said. "This means talking about schedules and progress; sharing application project information, scientific and environmental data, and cultural and traditional knowledge; and making sure that our decisions are based on the best information available."
Officials in Alaska have been highly critical of delays in drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. State coffers receive upward of 90 percent of their revenue from the petroleum industry. The trans-Alaska pipeline now operates at less than one-third capacity and pressure is mounting to find new petroleum sources, such as the 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil estimated to be beneath Alaska's outer continental shelf.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, earlier this year introduced legislation to create a federal coordinator for Arctic outer continental shelf drilling and called the formation of the group "a step in the right direction."
"The administration now needs to do the work required to speed and streamline permitting in Alaska," he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said a broken federal permitting process has for years held up responsible development of offshore Alaska oil and natural gas resources.
"I will be watching this effort closely to ensure that it's successful at closing what has been an endless loop of approvals, appeals and delays _ delays caused by special interest groups opposed to improving our energy security and the jobs it would create," she said.
Shell Oil President Marvin Odum told The Associated Press last month that Alaska has been an investment disappointment. The company has spent more than $3.5 billion on Alaska offshore drilling, including $2.1 billion on Chukchi leases in a 2008 sale, but has yet to drill an exploratory well.
The Houston-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC has been stymied by an appeal of an Environmental Protection Agency clean air permit, a lawsuit that challenged the legitimacy of the lease sale, and a determination by federal regulators to move slowly in the Arctic after the blowout of BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Reaction by environmental groups to the White House announcement was mixed.
Andrew Hartsig of Ocean Conservancy said the interagency working group will give the federal government a chance to look at the big picture and the entire ecosystem as it considers development.
Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to list polar bears, walrus and other ice-dependent Arctic species as endangered because of global warming, said creation of the group is a tilt toward development.
"While the executive order contains platitudes about environmental protection, the very purpose of the order is to signal to federal agencies that they need to expedite drilling approvals," Cummings said.
Federal agencies, he said, operate under the assumption they cannot say no to oil development in Arctic waters, he said.
"They can ask for a few more safety or mitigation measures, but they cannot raise the fundamental question of whether drilling in the Arctic should be part of a rational energy policy," Cummings said. "This order will further cement that agency dynamic."