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Interior secretary headed for Alaska

Jill Burke

This week, the Obama appointee whose oversight affects everything from hunting rights for rural Alaskans to oil and gas development in the Arctic will travel to our state to discuss "matters of importance" to the people who live here.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will hold public events in Barrow and Anchorage on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

According to Kendra Barkoff, Salazar's press secretary, Salazar expects the conversation to include Native issues, subsistence hunting and fishing rights, and oil and gas development, among others.

Salazar previously visited the state in April 2009 as a new member of the Obama administration during a series of public hearings on oil and gas lease sales in advance of the president shaping the nation's offshore energy policy, which would emerge in the coming year as a policy supportive of drilling in new areas of the OCS, but with a cautious eye on implications for the environment.

"If we are to responsibly develop energy resources in frontier areas of the outer continental shelf, especially in the Arctic's extreme environment, we must support exploration activities, gather the science needed and listen to affected communities," Salazar said in announcing the administration's offshore development strategy March 31 of this year.

With 487 leases in the Chukchi Sea and another 186 in the Beaufort Sea, only one company -- Royal Dutch Shell -- was prepared to drill in Alaska's Arctic waters this summer.

But three weeks after the energy policy announcement that viewed exploration as a good thing, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico changed everything, jolting high-level decision makers into rethinking their lenient attitude.

Although Alaska's shallow waters are not subject to the deep-water drilling moratorium Salazar imposed in the wake of the spill, Shell's plans were still put on hold pending a review of whether Arctic exploration can be done safely, with lessons learned from the gulf spill expected to help guide the analysis. Future lease sales are on hold for at least two years in the Arctic. Meanwhile, a study Salazar ordered before the spill on what is known and not known about operating in the Arctic remains underway, due Oct. 1. With the USGS in the lead, the study is meant to inventory all of the information various government agencies have amassed about the arctic, and whether there are knowledge gaps.  The results are likely to influence future decisions about the Arctic, according to Barkoff.

The Interior Department hasn't decided whether it will give Shell the go-ahead to resume exploratory drilling in 2011, and it won't give a firm deadline for doing so. Shell has in the past said it needs a favorable signal by the end of the year before it will be willing to spend the money on gearing up for another attempt.

The company has said it's spent more than $3.5 billion preparing to look for oil and gas off Alaska's northern shores, with more than $100 million going to Alaska businesses that provide support services to the operation. Reaction to the delay has been mixed. Alaska's congressional delegation and its governor have lobbied hard to swiftly restore arctic drilling opportunities. But some villagers, nervous about the negative consequences drilling may bring to the environment and its marine life, have praised the move.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.