Oil Lease Sale in U.S. Beaufort Sea Delayed by Two Years to 2017

The Obama administration pushed back by two years a sale of oil leases in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea to collect additional scientific information about the region, the Interior Department said.

The agency plans to auction rights in the Arctic spanning the U.S.-Canada border in 2017, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today on a conference call with reporters. A draft leasing plan for 2012-2017 released in November set the sale in 2015.

“We want to ensure that we get it right, and so we are not going to rush the process,” Deputy Secretary David Hayes said on the call. A sale of leases in the adjacent Chukchi Sea remains on schedule for 2016, he said.

The U.S. probably will let Royal Dutch Shell Plc start exploring in the Arctic this year to lower dependence on foreign fuel and compete with nations such as Norway and Russia, which are more advanced in drilling north of the Arctic Circle. The Beaufort Sea is estimated to have 8.22 billion barrels of oil, according to a 2011 Interior Department assessment.

The agency will collect information from the energy industry, environmental groups and native Alaskans to ensure that environmentally sensitive areas or those that Eskimos rely on for their sustenance are excluded, Hayes said.

Shell, which bought the Beaufort Sea leases in 2005, is waiting for the final U.S. permit to begin drilling wells in the area. The company plans to drill two wells in 2012 and two in 2013.

“Allowing additional time to gather science and develop targeted lease sales is a step in the right direction,” Mike LeVine, a senior counsel for the environmental group Oceana, said today in a statement.

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