JUNEAU, Alaska – The Obama administration is interested in seeing more oil and gas development in Alaska, both onshore and off, but it wants to make sure that any drilling is done responsibly, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday.
Salazar's comments come just days after a federal agency gave conditional approval to Shell Oil Co.'s plans to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean as early as next year. Approval is contingent upon Shell receiving necessary drilling, air quality and other permits and authorizations, including endorsement of its oil spill response plan.
Critics have charged that the technology and infrastructure do not exist to adequately respond to a spill in the Arctic.
Salazar spoke with reporters in Anchorage after a roundtable discussion on issues including Arctic drilling with business and labor interests. He said lessons learned from last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — including the fact that companies weren't as prepared to respond to a spill as they'd claimed — are "engrained" in his mind and that of Deputy Secretary David Hayes.
But he noted that conditions in the Arctic are quite different than those in the gulf — waters are shallower, for example. The government was looking at ways to develop stronger offshore leasing and development oversight, place conditions on drilling that incorporate lessons learned from the gulf spill and better understand the Arctic, Salazar said.
Earlier in the day, he said greater investment is needed to build up the nation's Arctic infrastructure, with a role for both the government and private interests to play.
He told reporters his department plans to continue reviewing applications for off- and onshore development in areas like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. State leaders, including the congressional delegation and Gov. Sean Parnell, who believe the government has too often gotten in the way of development, have pushed for more drilling in the reserve as a way to further boost domestic production and ease reliance on foreign oil. Federal lands cover most of Alaska.
In May, President Barack Obama announced a number of steps intended to speed domestic production. Those directly affecting the state included holding annual lease sales in the reserve and creating an interagency task force to coordinate permit approvals so companies could move toward development.
Hayes, who's leading the task force, said a group is gathering comments from Alaskans on ways to improve the permitting process. Staff is focused on energy projects currently "on deck," he said, with a goal of having federal agencies work together and not cause delays in projects by their lack of communication or coordination.
Salazar is in the state at the request of Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski. He said the focus of this multi-day trip — his third to Alaska as secretary — is on energy, understanding the importance of conservation to the state's economy, fisheries and Interior's relationship with Alaska Natives.
He and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the chair of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, are expected to join Murkowski on a tour through Wednesday. They are expected to stop at Bureau of Land Management firefighting facilities in Fairbanks, on the prodigious North Slope, at an Indian Health Services hospital under construction in Barrow, the petroleum reserve and Denali National Park.
Salazar met with Parnell later in the day. Parnell's spokeswoman said the governor described the meeting, which Hayes and Begich also attended as "a very cordial discussion on a broad range of topics," including the importance of the trans-Alaska pipeline to the state and nation and Parnell's goal of boosting oil flow through the line to one million barrels a day by 2022.
Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage.