Interior Official Urges Congress to Approve Arctic Drilling

By Jim Carlton Features Dow Jones Newswires

A Trump administration official on Thursday urged Congress to approve drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying it would boost the nation's energy independence and help the Alaskan economy.

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"If production is authorized by Congress, the administration believes this will bolster our nation's energy independence and national security, provide economic opportunity for Alaskans and provide much-needed revenue to both the state of Alaska and federal government," Greg Sheehan, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in testimony on Capitol Hill.

In the interview before his testimony -- the first by an administration official on the Arctic refuge -- Mr. Sheehan said the agency would take steps such as restricting the use of drilling pads and imposing seasonal work shutdowns to limit the environmental impact.

"Should Congress pass legislation to move forward with oil exploration in the...area, we will work to balance our nation's real and ongoing energy needs with our commitment to preserving the beauty and diversity of this unique natural area," he said.

Mr. Sheehan's comments came ahead of his testimony Thursday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a longtime proponent of opening the refuge to oil and gas exploration.

Opponents of opening the Arctic refuge to drilling say the only way to fully protect the refuge is to keep it off limits to drilling. Both the House and Senate versions of the budget bill contain pro-drilling provisions, as does President Trump's fiscal plan.

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The refuge was created by Congress in 1980, under an act that deferred a decision on potential oil and gas development of the 1.5-million-acre area. Environmentalists say that land on a coastal plain is important to wildlife including migrating birds, caribou and polar bear.

"Opening the Arctic refuge coastal plain to oil leasing, exploration, and production unacceptably threatens the Arctic refuge's globally significant wilderness and wildlife values," Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said in her testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Mr. Sheehan was appointed his agency's principal deputy director in June after serving as director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. In his interview with the Journal, he said only Congress has authority to open the area, which encompasses 1.5 million of the refuge's 19.6 million acres. He acknowledged oil and gas development in the refuge "could have some impact on the wildlife."

With the refuge believed to contain immense oil reserves, administration officials and many Republicans in Congress say drilling there could generate badly needed new revenues for both the U.S. and Alaska. According to Senate budget estimates, the projected revenues for the government from oil and gas leasing over a decade are as much as $1 billion.

Drilling critics say the figure is grossly exaggerated. No leasing is considered imminent, and many in the industry believe exploration in that part of Alaska is so expensive that few companies would invest heavily there soon, especially given low oil prices.

Mr. Sheehan in his interview said it was premature to put a figure on total revenues, calling that speculative. But he added that prices could certainly rise over time and that it is important to have an area like the refuge ready for production when the time is right.

"We don't know what future oil and gas prices will be," Mr. Sheehan said. "What is important to keep in mind is we have a country that is using oil and gas at a predictable rate, and there is going to need to be some replacement of that over time."

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 02, 2017 16:55 ET (20:55 GMT)