Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation three weeks ago praised Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after he announced nearly all federal waters off the state’s coast could be offered for petroleum lease sales.

But after hearing from critics who do not want drilling in their home waters, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young are backtracking.

In a letter Friday to Zinke, the delegation requested that most Alaska waters from the state’s Panhandle to the Bering Strait be removed from the proposed five-year drilling plan.

Instead, they urged lease sales in only three areas: Cook Inlet, where petroleum platforms have extracted oil and natural gas for decades, and the Arctic waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

“We believe the strongest near-term offshore program in Alaska is one that focuses on the Chukchi, Beaufort and Cook Inlet,” they wrote. “Such a program will maximize agency resources and reflect the areas with the broadest support for development among Alaskans.”

Zinke announced the proposed lease sale plan Jan. 4. He said revisions could be made after public comment.

Immediate opposition

The proposal excluded only one area of Alaska: the North Aleutian Basin, home to Bristol Bay and the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon.

The proposal drew immediate opposition from governors in East and West Coast states. After Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, met with Zinke, the secretary announced that drilling would be “off the table” for waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off Florida.

Subsistence resources

In Alaska, proposed lease sales in the Bering Sea drew strong condemnation from the Bering Sea Elders Group, an association of Alaska Native elders appointed from 39 tribes, and Kawerak Inc., a regional nonprofit organization, which said oil and gas activities pose a serious threat to marine life.

“These basins are where tribes from our region have harvested subsistence resources for millennia and where local people from our region fish and crab commercially,” Kawerak said in an announcement.

Drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, home to polar bears, walrus and ice seals that support the subsistence economies of coastal villages, is strongly opposed by environmental groups. They say the harsh climate makes spills inevitable and that cleanup of a major spill would be impossible in waters choked by or covered in sea ice.

Oil estimates

However, federal regulators say the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast, holds an estimated 8.9 billion barrels of oil and the Chukchi, off Alaska’s northwest coast, holds an estimated 15.4 billion barrels.

Royal Dutch Shell spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi Sea leases in 2008, invested another $5 billion overall in U.S. Arctic waters, and pulled out after drilling a dry hole in 2015.

Murkowski, Sullivan and Young contend drilling in Arctic waters can be done safely. They said they strongly support the inclusion of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for lease sales between 2019 and 2024, while at the same time urging “meaningful consultation” with communities.

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