On October 24, 2018, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) conditionally approved the Hilcorp Liberty Project Development and Production Plan (DPP) for an oil drilling project in the Arctic Beaufort Sea. The Department of Interior has the authority to do this under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which allows it to grant mineral leases for areas of the outer continental shelf that have not been withdrawn from development to the highest qualified bidder.
The Liberty Project, planned for areas of the Beaufort Sea on which the Department of the Interior granted leases in 1991, has been winding its way through the approval process for decades. As currently planned, it would involve building an artificial, nine-mile island off the coast of northern Alaska in the Beaufort Sea that would host a grounded oil-drilling rig. According to the Department of Interior’s press release, if built, the facility would be the first oil and gas production facility in federal waters off Alaska. Environmental groups, who are concerned about the effect an oil spill could have on the fragile marine environment, have long fought this development.
The current incarnation of the Liberty Project was submitted for approval to BOEM in September 2015, and the process of drafting an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was begun that month. In 2015 and 2016, President Obama issued two Presidential Memoranda withdrawing Arctic waters from development. However, the Memoranda did not impact already existing leases in the banned area, allowing the plan to continue through the approval process.
In April 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13795, “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” reversing the Obama Presidential Memoranda and instructing the Executive Branch to take several actions to expand drilling off the United States shoreline, including the Arctic. BOEM began rapidly advancing the Liberty Project at that point: It issued a draft EIS in August 2017 and completed a full EIS on August 23 of this year before issuing its conditional approval on October 24.