GUEST COMMENTARY: Alaska ready to lead in Arctic development
In 1923 President Warren Harding set aside 23 million acres in the middle of the U.S. Arctic as a petroleum reserve. The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A, is magnificent and its oil resource potential is world class.
In 2002 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated 10 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in the reserve. While that number was downgraded to 900 million barrels in 2010, exciting new discoveries at the Nanushuk and Willow prospects indicate the 2002 estimate was likely more accurate, and might even be too conservative.
Alaskans know better than most that we are vying with other nations for control of the Arctic. To win the race for control our top priority should be developing infrastructure in the region. Doing so will protect and strengthen Arctic communities, increase commerce for Alaskans and our country, and provide a platform for our nation to face challenges and even threats from other countries attempting to infringe on our waters.
Our nation is also moving toward its longstanding goal of energy independence. Domestic oil production has grown from a low of 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to a high of over 9.4 million barrels a day in 2015, providing the United States greater flexibility in its dealings with other nations and less reliance on imports from unstable areas of the world.
But domestic exploration and development of oil must continue if we are to obtain and maintain energy independence. Developing our untapped resources in the NPR-A is necessary to support this objective and highlights Alaska’s role in the safe and responsible production of domestic oil.
In May we were excited to hear Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s commitment to seek updated geologic information across the North Slope. Secretary Zinke’s comments highlighted the federal government’s commitment to developing updated data to support exploration of Alaska’s untapped oil. Alaska will be a key partner in collecting new data and updating resource estimates.
Our Geologic Materials Center in Anchorage, known as the GMC, is a world-class repository for core samples, well information and seismic data. It is a significant state asset that we can rally around as we assess and make decisions about the values below the tundra in the NPR-A. Count Alaska in when it comes to gathering new information that informs development.
In addition, the Walker Administration takes to heart our commitment to improve the lives of all Alaskans including our obligation to the communities in the Arctic region. In 2016 Gov. Bill Walker initiated a series of meetings with North Slope leaders.
It was agreed the most important feature missing on the North Slope landscape was infrastructure linking and supporting communities. Walker has addressed this issue by creating a program to systematically plan to build infrastructure that meets local needs and provides North Slope residents the benefits that most other Alaskans enjoy.
The project is called ASTAR, short for Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources. ASTAR will allow the State to redouble its efforts to work with communities that need critical infrastructure; take a lead role in long-term plans that focus on cumulative benefits of development; and ensure subsistence is protected. The North Slope Borough has formally joined the State of Alaska in the ASTAR project and we are forging ahead on this project in the coming year.
To increase positive momentum for NPR-A oil exploration, we need to do three things. First, we need Alaskans in the pilot seat when it comes to developing plans for the NPR-A. The State can help the federal government develop management plans that truly balance development and protection. Second, we need to empower local groups to have more control of the process. The NPR-A Working Group is a good example of local involvement.
This group, composed of the leaders of North Slope government, tribal organizations, and Alaska Native corporations was created by BLM in early 2013 to place local leaders in the co-pilot seat along with the federal government on NPR-A decisions. As new plans were considered, we look forward to the working group reconvening to provide strong, locally-sourced input. Third, we need to think long term. The saying goes “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.” Let’s seize the opportunity and plant Alaska’s tree now.
The NPR-A is a beautiful and stark landscape. The opportunity to move forward with balanced and well-informed management plans that benefit Alaskans and Alaskan communities is here now. The state is committed to working with Alaskan stakeholders to ensure we are all successful.
Andy Mack is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.