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Congress reconsiders how to regulate Arctic drilling

Scott Woodham,Eric Christopher Adams

Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling was front-and-center in Washington D.C. this week as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives opened new fronts in its battle against government regulation. Several bills have been introduced recently that aim to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its mandate to control air and water quality under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

It's been a swift about-face. Just last year, the Democratic-controlled Congress was attempting to pass legislation requiring industry to offset greenhouse emissions with carbon credits. In the new capitol order, carbon regulation is off the table.

Recent developments, characterized as “an attack on science” by some environmentalists, have altered the offshore drilling calculus. Shell Oil was prompted this week to announce that it expects in 2012 to be able to embark on long-delayed drilling plans in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. According to Shell Oil President Marvin Odum, the company plans to simultaneously implement a deepwater drilling spill-containment system. Odum said the company was cautiously optimistic.

That announcement came less than 48 hours after a House subcommittee took testimony from Alaska's full congressional delegation, along with state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, North Slope community leaders and oil industry executives on the impact of the EPA's Arctic air quality enforcement efforts.

For whom the feds regulate

Most of the Alaskans who testified didn't have much nice to say about the EPA. Congressman Don Young's prepared testimony centered on the EPA's seeming reluctance in recent years to grant air permits to Shell for exploratory drilling off Alaska's northern coast. In classic Young fashion, EPA scientists were lambasted as “kooks” and harangued for attempting to block the maturation of Alaska's economy.

Sen. Mark Begich spoke of that matter and the Army Corps of Engineers' denial of a bridge permit that would have facilitated development activity in the North Slope's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and further gave support to the idea that the Department of the Interior, not the EPA, should control air quality permitting in Alaska's offshore regions, as is currently the case in the Gulf of Mexico.

Begich, a Democrat, testified that the various regulations required by the EPA and the Department of the Interior had led to regulatory requirements "in the hundreds of millions of dollars" that were disadvantageous for Alaska industry.

"In almost every case, it seems the EPA comes into the mix and the delay is enormous," Begich said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also leveled serious criticism on the agency, saying it had exhibited "incompetency" in Alaska permitting, and that the current system allows the agency an "indefensible" amount of authority over the nation's energy policy.

Drilling delays have become something of a norm for Shell in its quest to drill off the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf. Plans to drill this summer were canceled after a lawsuit brought by environmentalists on behalf of North Slope communities prompted the EPA to consider air quality issues that had not previously been a part of Shell's permitting process.

Shell has been thwarted some five years in its efforts to drill off the coast of Alaska on leases it paid federal and state governments billions for.

Full transcripts of the testimony from Commissioner Sullivan, University of Alaska Anchorage economist Scott Goldsmith, Shell Oil executive David Lawrence and others were available at the House Energy and Resource Committee website.

Not all of the week's testimony was pro development, though. Former Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak's testimony to the subcommittee, on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League, touched on such environmental and health concerns.

She spoke of a dramatic increase in respiratory illnesses she saw in her community, and of concerns about the impact drilling activity might have on subsistence resources:

Only a handful of villagers work in the oil fields, and the yellow haze can be seen for miles and miles. Currently, nitrogen oxide emissions from the oil fields are more than twice the total emitted in Washington, D.C. During winter there are many natural gas flares. ... Air pollution isn't the only problem. We have water quality changes, land use conflicts, oil spills, noise pollution, increased traffic and disturbance to fish and wildlife species. And the social fabric of the community is under stress. Truancy, vandalism, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide are all increasing.

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation executive vice president of lands and natural resources Richard Glenn testified about the dependence of North Slope communities on oil revenue. He said that he shares concerns about the environment and the security of subsistence resources.

However, he noted that the Alaska OCS leases to Shell Oil would be explored 50 miles offshore, and went on to wonder why Alaska's offshore region appears to be governed by stricter air quality standards than the Gulf of Mexico does.

Is U.S. policy to wean off of foreign oil – or oil, period?

A Colorado Republican who sits on the House subcommittee submitted a discussion bill that seeks to speed up the Alaska OCS air permitting process. Opponents of the bill say it will restrict the public's ability to voice environmental and health-related concerns.

The official policy of the federal government, as outlined by President Obama, is to wean America off of foreign sources of oil. Alaska's most recent leaders -- including former Gov. Sarah Palin and current Gov. Sean Parnell -- have noted that this position should lead to an easing of barriers toward domestic energy resources, in and across Alaska and elsewhere.

But the administration's EPA also intends to regulate the greenhouse gases that are a direct byproduct of oil and other fossilized energy sources. These regulatory policies come at the same time as state governments from Alaska to Maine move to deregulate the environment in order to kick-start recessionary economies.

Regulators are caught in the middle of the increasingly acrimonious fight. The EPA has maintained for more than a quarter century that oil and gas drilling waste is hazardous to humans, a position that has resulted in a progressively narrowing scope and mandate of EPA studies, according to environmentalists.

Industry and its political backers have consistently maintained over the history of the EPA that cutting regulatory "red tape" will lessen American dependence on foreign energy sources. The question being debated in the halls of Congress on behalf of Alaska and the rest of the nation will determine what price energy independence may ultimately cost.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com and Scott Woodham at swoodham(at)alaskadispatch.com