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U.S. needs Arctic oil and gas policy changes

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News-Miner Community Perspective:

With the price of oil down and news of companies halting their drilling efforts in the Arctic, it is easy to get caught up in what seems to be an ongoing drip of negative headlines surrounding Alaska’s oil and gas industry and its impact on our economy.

However, we cannot forget the sheer volume and long term value of Alaska’s resources. We have

35 billion barrels of oil and 161 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, production in Alaska’s offshore Arctic waters alone could last for 50 years and generate tens of thousands of jobs nationwide.

That is why, as Senator, I fought to diversify our energy development strategy. I took on federal regulators and we saw progress opening new federal lands and waters to oil and gas development. After 25 years of stalled progress, the Obama Administration finally permitted oil and gas exploration in waters off Alaska’s North Slope and allowed work to get underway in the National Petroleum Reserve-

Alaska (NPR-A), which is expected to produce 18 million barrels of oil per year. However, there is more the federal government can and should be doing, and we can’t let the latest news derail the important progress we’ve made.

I believe there are five critical steps that the federal government could be taking right now to provide security and sustainability for Alaska’s oil and gas industry while increasing our national security:

• Reduce approval process time for projects: In 2011, the Obama Administration adopted my idea to create a one-stop-shop permit review agency in the federal government to expedite the process. I believe, however, this should go even further. By establishing it in law and expanding its jurisdiction, Congress could direct this agency to accelerate permitting on critical natural resource projects across the state.

• Provide 20-year leases: Currently, 10-year leases are the industry standard. That makes sense in warm climates like the Gulf of Mexico where you can drill year around. In the Arctic, however, where drilling is limited to certain times of the year for practical and safety reasons, 20-year leases make more sense.

• Approve revenue sharing for Alaska communities: In 2006, before I was in the Senate, Congress passed revenue-sharing legislation granting Louisiana and Gulf of Mexico states a share of revenues from oil and gas development in federal waters off their coasts. There is no reason Alaska should be excluded from this arrangement.

• Invest in oil spill technology for cold climates: Development critics like to cite oil spills in other areas — like the Gulf of Mexico — that are entirely different from the conditions present or responses necessary in the Arctic. By investing in oil spill technology for cold climates, we will continue to demonstrate our preparedness.

• Develop a public-private partnership for an Arctic port: As chairman of the U.S. Senate Oceans Subcommittee, I brought the issue of a deepwater port front and center. Warming waters and increased traffic mean big opportunities for Alaska if we invest in our infrastructure now.

In addition to our vast natural resources, the talented and trained workforce in Alaska is unmatched. Right here in Fairbanks, the Pipeline Training Center is providing top-notch training and producing skilled workers for all sectors of Alaska’s oil and gas industry. We must continue to invest in our people and ensure that energy jobs in Alaska are filled by Alaskans. 

Alaskans have always had a stake in our natural resource development and a keen understanding of the critical role it plays in our state’s overall economy. But we also understand how important Alaska is to the energy and national security of our country. Having a ready supply of oil and gas protects our role as a leader across the world and protects our jobs here at home.

As Alaskans, we have never been afraid to take on tough challenges and create great opportunities. We must focus on harnessing Alaska’s potential for innovative energy development and create a long-term, sustainable energy plan that works for our state and our country.

Mark Begich served as a U.S. Senator from Alaska from 2008-2014. He is now the president and CEO of the Northern Compass Group, an Anchorage-based consulting firm.

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