Between 2000 and 2008, the area available to offshore oil and gas activities in Alaska waters increased eight-fold – from 9.4 million acres to 77 million acres. During those years, the Bush administration initiated oil development at an unprecedented pace and scale in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the U.S. Arctic Ocean, as well as Bristol Bay in the southeast Bering Sea.
Oil and gas activities pose significant environmental risks that include: potential oil spills, noise pollution, toxicological impacts, physical impacts and socioeconomic impacts. Before such development proceeds, more scientific research must be done to understand the impact of climate change on the Arctic. Comprehensive planning – including adequate consultation with indigenous communities – must take place to prevent environmental damage. Adequate response capabilities and infrastructure must be in place to deal effectively with emergencies such as oil spills.
Offshore Oil Platform Flaring Gas in the Arctic Ocean
© Stockbyte/Getty Images
Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing
The Alaska region of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) includes extensive acres of ocean habitat, mostly in Arctic waters. This marine ecosystem is central to the lives of Arctic peoples and to the survival of 23 species of marine mammals, 100 species of fish and more than 50 species of birds.
The Arctic OCS contains oil and gas resources managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Every five years, this federal agency must prepare a new plan for offshore oil and gas lease sales. BOEM is obligated to examine the potential environmental impact of its leasing program and must balance the benefits and risks of development.
Current Federal Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program (2012-2017)
In October 2012, the new 2012-2017 leasing program went into effect. The Final Program begins from the starting point that certain areas of the Arctic Ocean should be excluded from leasing because environmental and subsistence conditions strongly weigh in favor of keeping them off the table for exploration and development.
The Final Program’s schedule includes two possible lease sales off Alaska’s coast.
- In 2016, up to 36 million acres in the Chukchi Sea may be offered in lease sale 237:
- The exact lease sales area within the larger planning area has not yet been identified.
- A 25 buffer along the Chukchi coast and approximately 1 million acres north of Barrow are currently deferred from leasing
- In 2017, up to 32 million acres in the Beaufort Sea may be offered in lease sale 242.
- The exact lease sale area within the larger planning area has not yet been identified.
- Two small whaling areas near Barrow and Kaktovik are currently deferred from leasing
- Originally planned for 2015, Beaufort leasing has been postponed to 2017 in recognition of the significant overlapping of subsistence use, resource distribution, species habitat, and to allow BOEM more time to analyze and implement a more focused leasing strategy in this area.
The President withdrew the North Aleutian Planning Area, which includes Bristol Bay, from oil and gas leasing until 2017 so is not included in this Program.
Previous Federal Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program (2007-2012) Failed to Balance Multiple Uses
A federal court determined that BOEM's previous 2007-2012 national offshore oil and gas leasing program (2007-2012 leasing program) did not properly evaluate the environmental sensitivity of the marine ecosystem and balance the benefits and risks of development in the Arctic. And on March 31, 2010, President Obama cancelled all remaining lease sales in the Arctic Ocean until 2012 and withdrew Bristol Bay from leasing until 2017. The 2007-2012 leasing program had called for the following oil and gas lease sales off Alaska’s coast:
- 32 million acres in the Beaufort Sea would have been offered through:
- 2010 (Lease Sale 209)
- 2011 (Lease Sale 217)
- 37 million acres in the Chukchi Sea would have been offered through:
- 2010 (Lease Sale 212)
- 2011 (Lease Sale 221)
- 2011 (Lease Sale 214)
- 5.6 million acres in Bristol Bay would have been offered
Offshore Oil and Gas Leases in the U.S. Beaufort Sea
© Minerals Management Service
Offshore Oil and Gas leases in the U.S. Chukchi Sea
© Minerals Management Service
- Beaufort Sea: Approximately 1.1 million acres were leased in:
- 2003 (Lease Sale 186)
- 2005 (Lease Sale 195)
- 2007 (Lease Sale 202)
- In addition, oil companies own another five active leases covering approximately 21,000 acres.
- Chukchi Sea: Approximately 2.7 million acres of active leases from Lease Sale 193 offered in 2008. This was the first lease sale in the Chukchi Sea in more than 15 years.
- Cook Inlet: 4,000 acres on two active leases
Once leased, these areas are subject to seismic and other exploratory activities.
Learn more about the effects of oil and gas development:
Find out how oil and gas development affects Alaska Native Communities.
Halpern, B.S. et al. 2008. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science 319:948-952.
How to Address U.S. Arctic Science Needs
The Pew Charitable Trusts and Ocean Conservancy recently released a white paper in which 14 independent Arctic marine scientists reviewed and reinforced the recommendations of a USGS Arctic science gap analysis. The white paper also recommends concrete steps the Obama administration should take to address science gaps and inform conservation and development decisions in America’s Arctic Ocean.
VIDEO: Don't Put America's Arctic Ocean at Risk
The oil industry recently submitted exploration plans to drill up to 10 wells over the next two summers in the U.S. Arctic Ocean for review by the Department of the Interior. As the video below shows, to allow drilling now would put this extraordinary ecosystem—and vibrant communities that have practiced a traditional way of life for thousands of years—at risk.
Arctic Oil Spill Report
Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences is the most comprehensive analysis yet on challenges to preventing and containing spills along the nation’s northernmost coast. Find details, downloads, and video >