The Interior Department on Tuesday said that Shell Oil is on track for approval to start exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska this summer, but that future lease sales in the Arctic Ocean will be delayed in a five-year leasing plan expected to be released later this week.
Interior officials also said the revised five-year leasing plan will exclude more areas from oil and gas drilling in response to concerns by Native Alaskans about intrusions on the ocean fishery.
A five-year leasing plan released by Interior in November called for holding one lease sale in 2015 in the Beaufort Sea and one in 2016 in the Chukchi Sea. The revised plan will stick with the plan for a lease sale in Chukchi in 2016 but delay the sale in Beaufort by two years to 2017.
"The reason for the additional year is to ensure that we have good science to make sure we make the right decision," Deputy Secretary David Hayes explained on Tuesday, responding to questions on the date changes. "We want to make sure that we get it right so we are not going to rush the process," he said.
The original five-year plan, which already excluded a 25-mile buffer zone from leasing because of its importance to fishing, will also be expanded to exclude an additional area north of Barrow, Alaska, that "has a very high subsistence value to Native Alaskan communities," Hayes said.