Interior Should Consider Later Arctic Drilling If Conditions Are Safe, Murkowski Argues

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said on Thursday that the Interior Department should be open to extending the time period during which Shell Oil could perform exploratory drilling in the Arctic, given the narrowing window and the unexpected ice conditions in the region.

"I think they should be open to extending it, and I believe that they will if it is determined that the ice conditions are such that there will be an adequate period of time — Interior has said 30 days — for Shell to get out of the water," Murkowski said after a GOP press conference on new energy legislation.

Shell has been hoping to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north coast of Alaska for many years, and the momentum of permit approvals by the Obama administration plans was headed in their favor this summer until a number of setbacks, including the onset of the heavy sea ice, pushed back the drilling window by another month.

The original requirements from the Interior Department will have Shell out of the Chukchi sea by mid-September and out of the Beaufort Sea by the end of October.

"The days are going by; the ice is still there; Shell is not up in the Chukchi or in the Beaufort yet," Murkowski said. "Will there be enough time? I don't think we know, but I think we've got to be cognizant that there are considerations with the ice."

Murkowski argued that Interior should be able to adjust to the ever-changing and unpredictable conditions in the Arctic in its permit considerations. "I don't know if late ice in July and August means that we're going to be ice-free a greater period in September. I don't know that. I don't think the experts know that, and so I think we need to perhaps be in a wait-and-see mode," she said.

"If the folks at [the National Oceanic and Amospheric Administration] and all those that are examining the ice and conditions up there look at the situation on the ground and, let's just say mid-September, and say "˜Wow, ice is much further off, it's slower in forming; conditions look like it's going to allow for a longer period,' I think the Department of Interior clearly left the door open for that."

Despite Murkowski's pleas, however, the Interior Department indicated that it remains firm in its deadlines.

"The requirements for the company are clear and we expect them to be met," Interior spokesman Blake Androff told National Journal on Thursday.