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Late in 2011, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska slipped a policy rider into the fiscal 2012 omnibus spending package, transferring from the EPA to the Interior Department the air quality permitting process for drilling oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern shore.
It was a seemingly benign move. The Alaska Republican noted that the Interior Department already was responsible for air permitting at most Gulf of Mexico drilling operations. She said it only made sense to have a consistent set of rules enforced by a single agency.
The idea was to streamline the permitting process by consolidating authority in a department with a reputation for moving more expeditiously.
Today, rising Arctic temperatures and melting sea ice, which climatologists view as signs of impending peril, spell opportunity for energy companies eager to tap newly accessible offshore oil and gas reserves. Some companies have gotten a green light to drill in Alaska’s abundant offshore oil deposits, and others hope to follow soon.
Environmentalists worry, however, that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management lacks the capability or resources to consider fully the effects of air pollution in the Arctic environment. They say the agency’s regulatory structure, more than 30 years old, was tailored for conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
To them, a little-noticed shift in jurisdiction for enforcing clean-air laws at drilling operations could jeopardize air quality in the pristine region.
“EPA has a long history of protecting air and water — including making sure that places like the Arctic with very clean air stay that way,” said Michael LeVine, a senior counsel at the environmental group Oceana. He said the Interior agency “has not been responsible for implementing comprehensive protections, like those in the Clean Air Act, in the Arctic, and there is reason to be concerned about the resources and expertise available in the agency.”
After years of delays and setbacks, Shell Oil Co. began exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea in September, before shutting down for the season. The Interior Department estimates that the Chukchi Sea may hold as much as 15 billion barrels of crude petroleum and the Beaufort Sea up to 8 billion barrels, reserves that the oil industry is eager to develop.
Concerns about the risks of drilling, however, were amplified by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Critics warned that hostile weather conditions and a lack of infrastructure for a quick response could make a similar spill in the Arctic far more catastrophic.