updated 9/4/2009 3:47:32 PM ET 2009-09-04T19:47:32

The federal government should allow offshore oil and gas drilling along Alaska's northernmost coastline, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said Thursday in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Parnell called a responsible Outer Continental Shelf leasing program that respects Alaska Native concerns "vitally important to Alaska and the nation."

The governor said Alaska's shelf contains an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas of potentially recoverable resources. Development of the resources is important as the country moves toward energy conservation and renewables, he said.

By comparison, the total oil production from the North Slope since the trans-Alaska pipeline started up in 1977 is about 15.5 billion barrels, Parnell said. Without new oil development, the pipeline could shut down within the next decade, he said.

"We are quickly approaching the minimum throughput rate, beyond which the flow of oil cannot be maintained," he said. "New sources of oil must be discovered now."

Citing a University of Alaska study, Parnell said shelf production could provide an annual average of 35,000 jobs for 50 years, and a $72 billion payroll.

Parnell urged the federal government to support a proposed five-year leasing plan open to public comment until Sept. 21.

Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the comment period was extended by 180 days to allow more time for people to comment on the leasing plan proposal.

"We are still in the process of receiving those comments," she said.

Salazar visited Alaska in April to gather information and comment on plans to lease federal waters to oil and gas companies. Many who attended the hearing wore "OCS Yes!" buttons while others said a sizable oil spill would be catastrophic to the environment.

The federal government's proposed five-year oil and gas leasing program includes 26 planning areas for the shelf. Contained in the plan are newly identified areas for drilling in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Also on Thursday, Parnell gave a speech to the Resource Development Council for Alaska in which he expressed his strong support for exploration and development on the shelf.

"OCS exploration is about Alaska jobs and revenue," the governor told the Anchorage-based industry group.

He also underscored his commitment to work with Alaska Natives and rural communities to ensure whale harvests and other subsistence activities can continue while offshore exploration and development is safely conducted.

Several Alaska Native groups, including the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, have filed lawsuits to prevent offshore drilling. The commission didn't immediately return a call for comment on Thursday.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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