The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is proposing modifications to a controversial oil and gas lease sale that the federal government has said must take place before the end of the year.
Lease Sale 258, as proposed in 2020, would open just over 1 million acres of seafloor between Kalgin and Augustine islands in Cook Inlet to oil and gas development. Supportive of the sale have been resource development groups like the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, while those opposed include environmental groups like Cook Inletkeeper, which last year organized an art sale to raise awareness about the sale.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which President Joe Biden signed in August, directs the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to hold the lease sale by the end of the year. That direction comes after almost two years of back-and-forth between the federal government and others.
The lease sale dates back to September 2020, when BOEM first announced it was seeking public comment on documents related to a proposed oil and gas lease sale in Cook Inlet. The sale was originally proposed for 2021, however, Biden issued an executive order pausing new oil and natural gas leases pending a “comprehensive review” of federal leasing practices.
Alaska was one of 13 states to challenge that executive order in court last spring, which resulted in a nationwide preliminary injunction on the pause implemented by Biden. That injunction allowed the federal oil and gas leasing program to continue while the feds appealed the injunction.
BOEM proceeded with the sale, publishing a draft environmental impact statement and soliciting public comments through the end of 2021. The work continued until May 2022, when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it would not move forward with the sale due to “lack of industry interest.”
Just three months later, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which directs BOEM to hold Lease Sale 258 by the end of this year. Since then, the Alaska Region has published a proposed notice of sale and a notice of availability was published in the Federal Register.
Lease Sale 258’s Final Environmental Impact Statement was published Thursday. That statement, a Thursday BOEM press release says, “identifies robust mitigation measures to be considered in leasing the area” relating to environmental resources and uses.
Per the environmental impact statement, BOEM considered eight alternative actions in addition to the original action proposed. Alternatives considered include excluding from the sale blocks that overlap with beluga whale and northern sea otter habitats and accommodations for the drift gillnet fishery season, among others.
The preferred alternative proposed by the document, into which public comments on the draft environmental impact statement were factored, is a combination of those proposals. Under that alternative, 193 blocks covering just under 1 million acres would be offered for lease.
Exempt from the lease sale under the proposed alternative would be 17 blocks located in beluga whale and northern sea otter critical habitats.
“Of the 193 remaining unleased blocks (14 are currently leased), additional mitigation measures would be adopted to further reduce potential impacts to beluga whale critical habitat and feeding areas, sea otter critical habitat, and the gillnet fishery,” the environmental impact statement says.
The negative impacts associated with modifying the sale parameters are mostly economic, the environmental impact statement says.
More information about Lease Sale 258, including a timeline and supporting documents can be found on BOEM’s website at boem.gov/oil-gas-energy/leasing/lease-sale-258.