Bloomberg BNA
Ari Natter and Alan Kovski

The Obama administration plans to withdraw large swaths of the Arctic's Chukchi and Beaufort seas from oil and gas leasing in a new five-year oil and gas exploration plan expected to be released Jan. 27, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters Jan. 26.

The plan, which establishes the nation's offshore leasing schedule from 2017 to 2023 and does not need congressional approval, will “place in withdraw status” Arctic leasing areas that were deferred in previous leasing plans, as well as put new areas off-limits, Murkowski said, citing conversations with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and others at the department.

Her remarks followed one day after President Barack Obama called on Congress to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.

The president's remarks were released to accompany a plan released by the Interior Department on management of ANWR as wilderness not only in its interior areas but also throughout its coastal plain, the area considered likely to contain large reserves of oil. In addition to the 7 million acres already protected as wilderness, the proposal requests that designation for the remaining 12.28 million acres.

The refuge has been protected from oil and gas leasing for almost three decades. As a result, the announcement of the wilderness proposal is expected to set up a conflict with Republicans in Congress even though it involves no imminent change of a practical nature in ANWR activities.

‘We Are Going to Fight Back.'

The move to withdraw large parts of the Arctic offshore from oil and gas leasing could have a greater impact, at least for the next several years. It effectively would ban oil and gas development in those areas, although it is unclear how the new restrictions would affect areas already under lease by companies such as Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil, according to Murkowski's office.

“We are going to fight back and it's going to be a coordinated fight,” said Murkowski, who serves as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and also heads the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department's budget. “There are more tools now than there were in previous congresses, and I intend to exercise them.”

Murkowski made the remarks during a press conference in the Capitol where she joined with her home state's congressional delegation to rally against an “attack on Alaska,” which also included the wilderness proposal for ANWR.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Barriers for Petroleum Reserve, Too 

Murkowski said the Interior Department also outlined mitigation costs and other requirements for an area of the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska known as Greater Mooses Tooth Unit 1.

That area is being sought for development by ConocoPhillips, but the mitigation requirements would make the project prohibitively expensive, she indicated.

The current five-year program for 2012–2017 expires Aug. 26, 2017, and the Interior Department has begun work on the lengthy process for developing the next five-year offshore oil and natural gas program in June.

Atlantic Drilling Coming?

Environmental advocate Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's Washington office, said she is concerned that the Obama administration will use the next five-year plan to allow lease sales off the Atlantic Coast, an area that previous five-year plan avoided.

“The impacts of the BP oil spill are still being seen,” she said in an interview. “We shouldn't be opening up our beautiful beaches on the Atlantic any time soon.”

Meanwhile, some analysts said the timing of Obama's request on ANWR may provide some insight into the administration's thinking on its new five-year plan.

“If you look at what the big picture is, the Obama administration appears to be getting greener and tighter on oil drilling writ large,” Kevin Book, managing director of research for ClearView Energy Partners, said in an interview.