Senator proposes extending RCAC concept to the Arctic

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 30 -- US Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alas.) proposed extending the Regional Citizens Advisory Council concept to the Arctic as an alternative to continued legal challenges of offshore oil and gas activities in northern Alaska. Similar groups have operated successfully around Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet since the 1980 Exxon Valdez crude oil spill, he told a US Senate committee on July 27.

“Rather than lawyers and judges making decisions about Alaska resource development, I think Alaskans should be involved in the process from Day 1,” Begich told the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

But Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) said he opposed the idea when he heard that the committee adopted the proposal and three more by Begich as an amendment to S. 3597, the Securing Health for Ocean Resources and Environment (SHORE) Act. The bill was prompted by the Apr. 20 Macondo well blowout, rig explosion, and subsequent oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. The Arctic provisions were based on legislation Begich originally introduced in 2009 which he expanded earlier this summer, he said following the hearing.

Begich advanced his proposal for an Arctic RCAC less than a week after a federal district judge in Anchorage ruled that the US Department of the Interior agency which was then known as the US Minerals Management Service did not fully analyze the environmental impact before awarding Shell Offshore Inc. tracts in the Chukchi Sea in February 2008.

Judge Ralph Beistline halted activity on the leases, where Shell planned to drill its first exploratory wells later this year, in a July 22 order responding to a lawsuit by 12 environmental organizations and government and Alaska native groups from Point Hope, Alas. He said that MMS analyzed development of only the first 1 billion bbl despite acknowledging that the amount was the minimum amount of potential production there, according to an Associated Press report. It said that Beistline also ruled that MMS did not determine whether information which it said was missing before the sale was relevant or essential, or whether the cost of obtaining it was exorbitant.

Council’s makeup
Begich said that he drafted his Arctic RCAC proposal in consultation with Arctic region residents. The council, which would be funded by the oil industry, would include seven members representing local government, economic development, and subsistence interests, he indicated. There also would be exofficio members from state and federal regulatory agencies, the senator said.

“No one has been more outspoken in advocating for responsible domestic oil and gas development in the US Senate than I have,” he maintained. “Exercising leadership to achieve responsible development rather than filing lawsuits will pay long-term dividends for Alaskans.”

Parnell said Begich and his staff did not consult with the governor and his administration as they prepared their proposal, and said that it simply would create another layer of bureaucracy for oil and gas producers. “We already have a rigorous regulatory framework in place for OCS development at the federal, state and local levels,” the governor said. Unlike the Prince William and Cook Inlet RCACs which has members appointed by the governor, the new one’s members would be chosen by the federal government, he added.

The new group’s geographic scope also is unclear, Parnell said, and could include state waters and submerged lands. The absence of a savings clause which clarifies the relationship between state and federal law, which exists for the two other RCACs, also creates the danger that Begich’s proposal might be interpreted as preempting state law, he said.

Begich said that the three other provisions affecting Alaska in the final bill would expand US Coast Guard capacity in the Arctic, boost National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spill research in the region, and improve wildlife restoration and ocean data gathering efforts.

“The SHORE Act takes a big step forward in the ability of federal and private entities to prevent and respond to oil spills,” he said. “It also finally recognizes the steps we need to take now in the Arctic to ensure responsible oil and gas development off Alaska’s northern coast, including increased citizen participation early in the development process to help avoid the endless lawsuits that have halted Arctic development in recent years.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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