Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Alaska Legislature March 22 he will introduce legislation establishing an Arctic outer continental shelf federal coordinator and creating a joint regional lease and permit processing office for Alaska's OCS region, modeled after the federal gas pipeline coordinator position.
The new federal coordinator would have authority to work across many agencies involved in permitting, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department.
The bill would be introduced soon, Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet said.
Begich spoke in Juneau in his annual address to the Legislature.
"The federal OCS coordinator would work with the state of Alaska and affected local governments to streamline development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which hold such promise for future oil and gas development," Begich said.
He also urged serious discussion of which federal agency should have jurisdiction over air permitting.
Begich argued for federal air quality permit authority in the Arctic OCS region to be brought under the Department of the Interior, which now has jurisdiction over air permits in the Gulf of Mexico.
This would take away the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current authority for air quality permits in the Arctic OCS.
An air quality permit for Shell's proposed exploration in the Beaufort Sea is now bogged down in appeals before the Environmental Review Board, an internal EPA appeals panel.
"We need to address the two different air permitting systems in the country. There are currently two processes and two different federal agencies overseeing air permits – one for the Gulf of Mexico and one for everyone else – including the Arctic," Begich said in his speech. "This makes no sense. It's not fair and it puts companies with projects in the Arctic at a competitive disadvantage. We need to level the playing field. It's time to move all air permitting under the Interior Department."
Shell reacted favorably to Begich's suggestions.
"The senator clearly understands the challenges facing responsible operators, like Shell, as well as the need for a regulatory process that is predictable and accountable," company spokesman Curtis Smith said in a statement. "A federal OCS regional coordinator for Alaska could go a long way in making that happen. Shell has already spent five years and over $50 million trying to secure an air permit for our drilling rig but with no success. The Senator's effort to align Arctic air permitting under the Department of Interior, as it is in the Gulf of Mexico, is one Shell supports."
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