ANCHORAGE, Alaska - President Donald Trump's pledge to make the United States "energy dominant" is extending to Arctic Ocean waters despite a pending lawsuit and lack of approval for a required five-year drilling plan.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Thursday opened a 30-day comment period seeking solicitations of interest in lease blocks within the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast for a sale in 2019. Expressions of interest help shape the scope of lease sales.
Arctic offshore sales are not included in the five-year drilling plan created under President Barack Obama. Environmental groups say a new national leasing program must be completed before a sale and that the administration is rushing the process in the Beaufort.
"Prejudging the outcome of the planning process is bad governance and bad for our ocean," said Michael LeVine said of Ocean Conservancy.
James Kendall, BOEM's Alaska region director, in an announcement Wednesday said the Beaufort Sea possesses great oil and gas potential as well as "unique, environmentally sensitive areas important to the subsistence needs of the region's Alaska Native communities."
"This process will help us identify not only the areas that can be safely and responsibly developed, but also those areas that should be protected for wildlife and traditional uses," Kendall said.
Environmental groups contend that Arctic offshore drilling will harm a region already hammered by climate warming. Summer sea ice has declined steadily in recent decades, reducing habitat for ice-dependent species such as walruses, polar bears and ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears.
The groups say a major oil spill would devastate wildlife and ruin marine mammal hunting for Alaska Native villages. They also say oil companies have not demonstrated that they can clean a spill in ocean waters choked with ice or covered by sea ice.
Obama kept Arctic waters out of the current five-year lease plan and took the additional step of permanently withdrawing most Arctic waters from lease sales under provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
Environmental groups have sued to retain Obama's permanent withdrawal of most Arctic waters from leasing, arguing that the law makes no provision to reopen areas withdrawn by a president. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason last week rejected a Trump administration motion to toss the lawsuit.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in early January announced a new draft five-year lease plan that included 19 possible sales off Alaska. The 30-day public comment period on that plan ended March 9.
In a statement Wednesday, nearly a dozen environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defence Council, The Wilderness Society, Greenpeace and the Alaska Wilderness League said solicitations for interest in a Beaufort lease sale is a clear sign that the Trump administration has made a decision to include Arctic waters in the five-year plan.
Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said Arctic offshore drilling will be fiercely opposed.
"Oil companies that want to drill in the Beaufort Sea will meet a wall of public and legal opposition," she said.