The Trump administration isn’t waiting for Congress when it comes to Arctic drilling, approving a plan on Tuesday to explore for oil and gas in the polar seas.
The Interior Department approved Italian oil company Eni’s application to drill an exploratory well from an artificial island in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling could start as early as December, provided Eni meets federal technical and regulatory requirements.
The approval comes as the Senate weighs legislation to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration. Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill to open ANWR as part of the budget reconciliation process.
While Murkowski maneuvers through the Senate, the Trump administration has been moving ahead with its “energy dominance” agenda. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said jump-starting Alaska’s oil industry would be a key part of that plan.
“Responsible resource development in the Arctic is a critical component to achieving American energy dominance,” Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Scott Angelle said of the Eni approval.
“BSEE is committed to working with our Alaskan Native and Industry partners by taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas exploration, development and production in the Arctic,” Angelle said.
The Interior Department moved forward with a drilling project at the artificial Liberty Island in August. Hilcorp took over Liberty Island in 2014 and estimates the site contains about 150 million barrels of recoverable oil. That project is still open to public comment.
Interior officials announced in October they would auction off 10.3 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), which could hold between 900 million and 10 billion barrels of oil. What remains to be seen, however, is if oil companies have an appetite for costly Arctic drilling with oil prices hovering around $60 a barrel.
The Obama administration put roughly half the NPR-A off-limits to oil and gas drilling, despite it being set aside by Congress specifically for that purpose. NPR-A is estimated to hold 895 million barrels of oil and 52.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Environmentalists have challenged the Trump administration’s energy agenda for Alaska, in particular, the president’s April executive order to reverse a 2016 Obama administration decision that put large swaths of Arctic seas off-limits to drilling.
Eni’s drilling project is outside of the zone the Obama administration made off-limits to drilling. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved Eni’s plan in July. BSEE’s approval is what Eni needed to proceed.
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