Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Tuesday announced the approval of the first offshore oil production facility in federal waters off the coast of Alaska.
"Working with Alaska Native stakeholders, the Department of Interior [DOI] is following through on President Trump's promise of American Energy Dominance," Zinke said in a statement. The DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued the conditional approval to Hilcorp Alaska LLC, which plans to build an artificial, oil-producing island in the Beaufort Sea five miles offshore.
Former President Barack Obama banned oil exploration in the Arctic in 2016, citing the unique risks of drilling in the pristine, icy environment and the threats to the endangered animals that live there. As Pacific Standard reported in 2015, responding to oil spills and accidents is much more complicated in Arctic regions:
Extreme weather, less daylight, lack of infrastructure, and the sheer remoteness of the drilling area also complicate spill response times. Arriving to a spill or leakage site with skimmers, booms, and the like could take much longer in the isolated Arctic. According to a 2014 report by the National Research Council, the U.S. Coast Guard has little presence in the Arctic and would have serious issues responding to an oil spill—a major concern, considering the extreme cold, high winds, and powerful storms that can materialize with little notice.
But the Trump administration lifted the ban in early 2018, opening up 90 percent of the outer continental shelf to potential oil leases.
There will be seasonal and regional restrictions to drilling activities, and the project still needs to obtain permits from state and federal agencies to move forward. But the Bureau believes that the oil company can operate safely in the region. "There are already four other gravel-island facilities [in state waters in the region], and we consider Hilcorp's plan to represent a relatively conservative, time-tested approach toward offshore oil and gas development," Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a statement.