The Interior Department’s latest draft strategy for offshore oil and gas leasing designates portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as off limits from consideration for future oil and gas leaving, to protect areas of critical importance to subsistence use by Alaska Natives, as well as for their sensitive environmental resources. The announcement on Jan. 27 noted that in December President Obama used this same authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ”to place waters of Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas development, protecting an area known for its world class fisheries and stunning beauty.”
“We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique environment, so we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “At the same time, the President is taking thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska Natives and wildlife.”
Four of the five areas withdrawn were previously excluded from leasing in the current 2012-2017 oil and gas program, three of the five were also excluded by the prior presidential administration. Those areas include the Barrow and Kaktovik whaling area of the Beaufort Sea and a 25-mile coastal buffer and subsistence area in the Chukchi Sea. The withdrawal also includes the biologically rich Hanna Shoal area of the Chukchi Sea, which has not previously been excluded from leasing. Interior officials noted that extensive scientific research has found this area to be of critical importance to many marine species, including Pacific walruses and bearded seals.
The announcement came on the heels of another announcement from President Obama saying he would ask Congress to declare areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Alaska as wilderness. That would include areas of the coastal plain identified as possibly rich in oil and gas resources.