BLM finalizes revised plan for federal petroleum reserve

Interior Department leaders published their decision to open nearly 7 million more acres of the western North Slope to the oil and gas industry Jan. 4 while federal attorneys prepared to defend the agency’s leasing plan for the other side of the region in court later that day.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision for the latest land-use plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which authorizes Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials to offer more than 18.5 million acres of the 23 million-acre federal parcel for bid in future oil and gas lease sales.

Formally known as the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan, the management scheme marks another subtle but significant achievement by the Trump administration in its push to increase energy and mineral development on federal lands across the state.

Meanwhile, Justice Department attorneys were about to defend BLM’s contentious leasing plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain on the eastern Slope during oral arguments in federal District Court over a motion by a collection of national environmental groups to stop the lease sale before bids are scheduled to be opened Jan. 6.

The previous NPR-A plan approved under the Obama administration in 2013 allowed BLM to lease just more than 11.7 million acres, or almost exactly half of the reserve. That plan closed to leasing more than 3.5 million acres — much of which is a vast wetlands complex — in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

The area is the calving grounds for a distinct population of caribou and is the summer nesting home for large numbers of migratory birds, both of which are important subsistence resources, according to area Tribes opposed to oil development there.

However, since then a handful of large oil discoveries have been made in the eastern portion of the reserve and on state land around the Teshekpuk Lake area, including ConocoPhillips $5 billion Willow prospect. In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey drastically increased its estimate for the amount of recoverable oil in the NPR-A, largely on the belief that additional Nanushuk oil formations are available in and around the Teshekpuk Lake area.

The USGS now estimates there are roughly 8.8 billion barrels of available oil in the reserve and adjacent state lands, up from just 896 million barrels in 2010.

Interior officials, state leaders and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have noted as much as the plan revision has moved along.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan said the new plan acknowledges the purpose of the reserve and will help the state’s long-term prosperity while also ensuring the protection of environmentally sensitive areas.

“This strikes the right balance and fulfills the statutory purposes of the petroleum reserve — to produce energy for our state and country,” Murkowski said in a statement from her office. “I thank Secretary Bernhardt and the team at BLM Alaska for their hard work to develop this plan, and for listening to input from Alaskans throughout the drafting process.”

While the pending ANWR lease sale receives most of the public attention because of the decades-long political battle over it, industry sources have consistently said they believe there will be more near-term interest from oil companies in the NPR-A because of the Nanushuk discoveries and the fact that there is less — but still some — political tension over the reserve.

ConocoPhillips currently holds a majority of the leased acreage and has done by far the most work in the NPR-A, with its two mid-sized Greater Mooses Tooth oil projects in addition to Willow.

The new plan mostly opens the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to industry leasing but would defer leasing in two areas totaling approximately 132,000 acres for 10 years.

It also eliminates the Colville River Special Area, which provides habitat protections over 2.4 million acres adjacent to the river as well, but would extend raptor protections previously required along the Colville to the rest of the reserve, thereby eliminating the need for the special area as well, the record of decision states.

The Colville River makes up much of the eastern boundary of the NPR-A.

Those protections for birds of prey include setbacks that prohibit permanent infrastructure other than critical roads and pipelines from being developed up to one mile from many of the rivers in the reserve.

BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a prepared statement that the plan is responsive to requests from the state and local governments.

“Our team of subject matter experts worked diligently to provide a robust environmental review that achieves a balance between conservation stewardship, being a good neighbor, and responsibly developing our natural resources to boost local and national economies.”

The North Slope Borough, recent state administrations and area Alaska Native corporations have continuously pressed the federal agencies to relax development restrictions in the reserve while several North Slope Tribal governments have pushed back, arguing the westward-moving oil development on the Slope will impact wildlife and thus subsistence harvests.

A handful of state and national environmental groups sued the Interior Department in late August after the release of the final NPR-A plan alleging in-part that BLM Alaska leaders violated the foundational National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by only conducting a cursory review of the impacts of additional development in the petroleum reserve.

The agency also did not consider any management alternatives in the final NPR-A land-use environmental impact statement, or EIS, known as the reserve’s integrated activity plan, meant to substantially increase protections for the reserve’s wildlife and aquatic resources, another NEPA violation, according to the complaint.

The groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Trustees for Alaska, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Audubon Alaska said in a joint Jan. 4 statement that BLM officials ignored the comments from nearby Tribal governments objecting to the plan.

“The Trump administration’s BLM has put forward a new management plan designed specifically to accommodate and promote oil development, not to protect key areas utilized by the Teshekpuk Lake caribou, migratory birds or other wildlife resources, and certainly do not protect communities in the region already facing unacceptable impacts on health, food security and cultural sovereignty due to existing industry activity,” the statement reads.

The final NPR-A EIS published in late June identified the agency’s preferred alternative as one that would open slightly more of the reserve to industry than was contemplated in any of the three action alternatives detailed in the draft review.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/06/2021 - 9:06am