The U.S. Department of the Interior has approved a plan amendment for the northeast area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, allowing leasing north of Teshekpuk Lake but also expanding areas where no surface occupancy will be allowed.
The plan amendment allows for leasing of the area north of Teshekpuk Lake in seven large tracts. This area was off limits to leasing under the original 1998 plan for northeast NPR-A.
But, BLM Alaska State Director Henri Bisson told Petroleum News Jan. 11, surface development on those seven tracts will be limited. “We have put a cap of 300 acres of new surface disturbance for construction of things like in-field roads, air strips, production pads, satellite pads and that sort of thing.
“So that means that there’s a cap of roughly 2,100 acres of possible disturbance on that 389,000 acres (the area now available for leasing north of the lake) which is less than one-half of 1 percent of the area.”
The amended plan uses lease stipulations and required operating procedures similar to those adopted for the northwest NPR-A in 2004.
The northeast NPR-A planning area has some 4.6 million acres, and the amendment makes additional acreage available for leasing and uses “performance-based lease stipulations and required operating procedures to increase flexibility in protecting important surface resources from the impacts of oil and gas activities,” Interior said in its record of decision.
Some 4.4 million acres, 95 percent of the planning area, are now available for oil and gas leasing, with leasing deferred on Teshekpuk Lake, approximately 211,000 acres, and leasing in the Colville River special area deferred until the Colville River management plan is completed.
Record of decision has changesThe amendment was developed by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages NPR-A. The record of decision was signed Jan. 11 by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Chad Calvert.
Bisson said the record of decision contains a number of changes based on comments from local government, North Slope residents and various organizations. The changes, he said in a statement, “have been included specifically to benefit subsistence users and wildlife values in the northeast planning area.”
Bisson told Petroleum News that while companies can explore anywhere in the 389,000 acres north of Teshekpuk Lake during the winter, 242,000 of those acres are “not available for construction of any permanent facilities,” an increase from 217,000 acres in the January 2005 plan and environmental impact statement. This expansion is in goose molting habitat north of Teshekpuk Lake.
He said BLM has “imposed a requirement on ourselves to do three years of study regarding the impact of disturbance on molting geese, before we would permit development,” research which is expected to get under way this year.
Shown in red on the map in one of the large, 45,000 to 60,000 acres, tracts north of the lake is an area where “results of the three years of study that we do on goose disturbance will be used to help us make any decisions on where a facility might or might not be located somewhere in that area,” he said.
Bisson said additional areas of no surface occupancy have been added north of the lake and to the south and west because of caribou calving habitat. Some of those are areas that were in the original northeast plan and have been put back in, he said.
An additional 47,000 acres of caribou habitat and calving area southwest of the lake has been designated no surface occupancy; there was already 141,000 acres of protected caribou calving habitat southeast of the lake. Caribou movement corridors have also been expanded by 9,700 acres northwest of Teshekpuk Lake, reflecting 56,000 acres of corridor protection.
No community roadBisson said that a provision which would have allowed construction of a community road into the area north of the lake has been removed. Now the only roads allowed will be in-field roads which will count against the maximum 300 acres of development per tract, he said.
The plan amendment has also increased a winter exploration buffer of 1,200 feet around subsistence cabins to a mile.
The special buffer around Fish Creek has not been changed, and a buffer on an additional river has been added.
“And basically from the time we completed the final EIS last January what we’ve done is added additional protection as a result of discussions that we’ve had with the North Slope Borough and other parties. We’ve actually added additional protection to improve our protection of subsistence resources and molting geese.”
Not all issues raised are settled in the plan amendment.
BLM will hold community workshops before a pipeline is proposed through either of two caribou migration corridors. The North Slope Borough, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM and the companies would all be involved in making decisions on “how best to locate that pipeline,” Bisson said.
“Ultimately we’ll make the decision” about a pipeline, he said, but the workshop would look at things like the height of the pipeline and specific location. There is a lot of concern about whether a pipeline is to the right or left of a caribou migration route. Bisson said that isn’t a decision that needs to be made now. “When we have a proposal let’s sit down with everybody and decide where the best place to put a pipeline is.”
2 billion barrels“And the bottom line, for me anyway, is that we have, I think, developed the most environmentally responsible approach to oil and gas leasing that the BLM has ever entertained,” Bisson said. For the entire northeast NPR-A planning area “we’re talking about a maximum potential disturbance of one-tenth of 1 percent of the area.”
It is “a very sensitive wildlife area,” Bisson said. “But on the other hand we’re talking about a difference of 600 million barrels of potential production that was authorized in the existing plan going to better than 2 billion barrels and an additional 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.
“At this stage of the game the country needs access to that resource. And we think we’re doing it responsibly.”
BLM has begun work on a plan for NPR-A south and a management plan for the Colville River special area, and additional leasing will be deferred in the Colville River special area within NPR-A until that plan is completed, Bisson said. The same decision has already been made for the northwest NPR-A and has been extended to the northeast.
Leasing in that area, in pink on the map, has been deferred until the plan is completed, which won’t be for several years, he said.
The entire northeast area, including the seven tracts north of Teshekpuk Lake, will be offered in a lease sale planned for fall, along with tracts not previously leased in the northwest area, excluding the Colville River special area.
Bisson said BLM anticipates that the lease sale will be in late September.
BLM is already being sued over the northeast EIS, and Bisson said there has not yet been a decision out of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court on the suit over the northwest.
Under the plan amendment lease stipulations for the northeast area will be similar to those adopted in 2004 for the northwest NPR-A.
There are different restraints on what can be done, based on geographic area between the northeast and northwest, “but the performance-based stips, the required operating procedures, all those are consistent from one location to the other,” Bisson said.
The record of decision and maps are available on BLM’s Web site at www.ak.blm.gov.