More than 60 members of Congress Tuesday wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar protesting the inclusion of Arctic sales in the federal government's proposed five-year leasing plan for the Outer Continental Shelf.

While "we are very pleased that the final proposed program does not allow oil and gas development in the Atlantic, Pacific or North Aleutian Basin...We disagree with [Interior's] decision to permit lease sales in the Arctic in the final proposed program" for 2012-2017, said the group of lawmakers, lead by Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ), David Price D-NC) and Lois Capps (D-CA).

The Interior leasing program, which was released in June, proposed 15 leases sales in six offshore areas, including three potential lease sales offshore Alaska in the Cook Inlet, and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (see Daily GPI,June 29). The two seas make up the Arctic Ocean. The proposed final plan has come under attack from the oil and gas industry, coastal governors and Republicans for its failure to open up new offshore areas to leasing (see Daily GPI, Aug. 15).

"We urge that no lease sales go forward in the Arctic Ocean until the department can demonstrate that exploration and drilling will not harm either the Arctic ecosystem or opportunities for subsistence," they said.

The House lawmakers proposed that Interior impose stringent conditions on companies that bid on lease sales in the Arctic, such as demonstrating an effective oil spill response capability and preparedness, and a comprehensive scientific research and monitoring program.

"The Arctic is a unique environment with significant hurdles to safe exploration and drilling. We fear that including Arctic lease sales in the plan creates momentum favoring leasing regardless of whether we can ensure adequate protections for the area." They noted that the Arctic Ocean is characterized by hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, subzero temperatures and months-long darkness, as well as limit infrastructure to develop oil and natural gas.

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