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New federal plan includes possible Cook Inlet oil and gas sale

Sabine Poux
Previous Cook Inlet lease sales have been canceled due to lack of industry interest.

There won’t be an oil and gas lease sale in Cook Inlet this year, or the year after that. An Obama-era proposal to hold a sale in the inlet was canceled this May due to a cited lack of industry interest.

But the Biden Administration may offer another sale down the line. In a new proposed five-year plan for offshore drilling, released Friday, the Department of the Interior floated the idea of auctioning off leases to oil and gas companies in the inlet in 2026. That’s in addition to 10 lease sales proposed for the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s frustrating sometimes to weigh in again and again and feel like you're not being heard," said Liz Mering, advocacy director with Cook Inletkeeper — which helped get thousands of comments submitted in opposition to the sale last time.

"But I think the administration did hear people last time and do want to hear people again," she added.

The Department of the Interior issues a new oil and gas leasing plan every five years for federal waters. That includes anything more than three nautical miles off the U.S. coast.

The current plan from the Obama administration expires this summer. And while it also called for a lease sale in Cook Inlet, that sale never happened. The feds said they didn’t hear enough interest from the oil and gas industry to go forward with that plan.

In the new, 500-page draft plan, the department said holding no more than one lease sale in Cook Inlet would allow for activity from the oil and gas industry and other industries, including fishing and tourism, as well as protections for marine mammal habitats.

The plan is just a proposal. And even with a lease sale on the books, the feds could still change their minds.

Kara Moriarty is president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. She said it’s hard to tell whether a lease sale will actually pan out this time.

She said it will depend, in part, on what the market conditions are several years down the line. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees the offshore leasing program, canceled sales in 2006, 2008 and 2010 in Cook Inlet. Again, the agency sited a lack of industry interest in those cancellations.

“There are a lot of factors that go into whether companies bid and when they bid and how much they bid," Moriarty said. "And that’s just something they keep pretty close to the chest because they don’t want to tip off any competitors.”

Still, she said she’s glad the door is open for a sale, even if it’s all very hypothetical. The plan does not include any potential lease sales in the Arctic — something that did make it into a proposed plan from the Trump Administration but was later shot down in court.

“I guess one is better than none," Moriarty said. "And if there’s no interest, there’s no interest. I mean, there’s no harm, no foul if the federal or state government offers a lease sale and if nobody shows, oh well.”

The Department of the Interior will open up comments on the plan Friday,, which will be the start of a 90-day comment period.

The department is also holding virtual meetings to get input on the proposed plan next month. You can find all that here.

Mering said that will be a chance to stop a lease sale from going through before it even starts.

“Certainly, Cook Inletkeeper will be asking people to again weigh in and making sure the Biden Administration is very clear on what the people in Cook Inlet want and protecting sustainable local economies, like fishing and tourism and a way of life here," Mering said.

She noted it won’t be the last time for public comment on a sale.

If the feds do ultimately decide to hold a Cook Inlet lease sale in the next few years, there will be additional chances for comment. That likely wouldn’t be until 2025 or later.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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