Former Defense Department Secretary William Cohen and 15 former military leaders are urging the Interior Department (DOI) to keep the Arctic Ocean in its proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022.

Currently, the proposed program would include 13 potential lease sales: 10 in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and three in offshore Alaska — one each in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and in the Cook Inlet (see Daily GPI, March 15).

In a June 15 letter to the DOI, Cohen and the other former military leaders — which together account for 58 stars from the military’s ranks — said they support the Beaufort and Chukchi areas’ inclusion in the leasing program, adding that keeping the areas out “would harm our ability to protect our interests and to promote cooperation in the region.”

The former brass said Russia and China are increasing their presence in the Arctic. They said Russia has a fleet of 40 icebreakers and has built bases, airfields and ports in the region, and has ambitious energy development plans. Meanwhile, China is also deploying new icebreakers to the region and has been encouraging Chinese shippers to use Arctic sea routes.

“In contrast, Arctic capabilities of the U.S. have dramatically declined…[and] our reduced Arctic presence and capabilities challenges the U.S. ability to positively influence all developments in the region,” Cohen and the other former leaders said. “Excluding the Arctic from the [leasing] program would signal retreat, needlessly reducing U.S. flexibility for promoting our national interests and our ability to ensure international cooperation, including ensuring best practices in Arctic drilling, in this sensitive and increasingly strategic region.”

Last Wednesday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced a bill encouraging the DOI to keep the Beaufort and Chukchi areas in the leasing program. He said the Obama administration has been under increasing pressure from environmental groups to withdraw the two regions in an effort to fight global warming.

“For the sake of our national security, America needs an all-of-the-above energy policy that allows us to produce our own cheap, reliable energy instead of importing it from dictators, unstable governments, and hostile foreign regimes,” Nunes said. “But we won’t achieve energy independence by blocking development of our most promising energy resources.

“Canceling the Arctic lease sales would be a self-defeating action that would not have the slightest effect on global warming; it would merely surrender the development of Arctic energy to rival nations like Russia.”

Last March, the Obama administration removed the Mid- and South Atlantic area, extending from Virginia to Georgia, from the leasing program. The areas were first included in a draft version of the plan in January 2015 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 27, 2015).