In another step along the precarious tightrope between Arctic resource development and Arctic environmental protection, on Aug. 13 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the Bureau of Land Management’s selection of a preferred alternative for the integrated activity plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. The preferred option — known as alternative B-2 — consists of the highest environmental protection option of four alternatives presented in BLM’s draft plan for the reserve, but with reductions in the sizes of some special areas designated for environmental protection and with no recommendations for wild and scenic river designations.
Salazar said that Interior had received 400,000 comments on the draft plan and associated environmental impact statement, issued in the spring.
This is the first time that Interior has attempted to develop an activity plan for the entire NPR-A — previously the agency has issued individual plans for different parts of the reserve.
11.8 million acresThe newly announced preferred alternative would make about 11.8 million acres of NPR-A available for oil and gas leasing. This land is estimated to hold about 549 million barrels of discovered and undiscovered economically recoverable oil and approximately 8.7 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable natural gas, which constitute “the vast majority of projected oil resources in the NPR-A available for leasing,” Interior said in a release accompanying Salazar’s announcement.
The preferred alternative also allows for the possibility of future pipelines and other infrastructure to support offshore oil and gas production in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Interior said.
“The proposal would allow us to expand our leasing in the NPR-A, as we have done over the last three years, and to build on our efforts to help companies develop the infrastructure … to bring supplies of petroleum products online,” Salazar said in announcing the preferred alternative. “This plan also strikes an important balance by recognizing the need to protect America’s treasures in the Arctic, from the raptors of the Colville River and the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea coast, to Teshekpuk Lake, Peard Bay, and some of the largest caribou herds on Earth.”
The proposed plan will make about half of the total area of the NPR-A available for leasing and will provide a roadmap for the transition from leasing through cautious exploration to “smart development,” Salazar said.
Off limits areaUnder the plan a large area of land in northern NPR-A, around Teshekpuk Lake, Smith Bay and Admiralty Bay would be off limits to oil and gas leasing. Many in the oil industry view this land, especially land immediately south of the Beaufort Sea coast, as particularly prospective because of the proximity to a major geologic structure called the Barrow Arch, a structure closely associated with major North Slope oil fields.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, responded to the Interior announcement with a terse statement.
“Today, the Obama administration picked the most restrictive management plan possible,” Murkowski said. “The environmentally sensitive Teshekpuk Lake area was already under a 10-year deferral for additional study, but this alternative goes vastly beyond that, putting half of the petroleum reserve off limits. This decision denies U.S. taxpayers both revenue and jobs at a time when our nation faces record debt and chronic unemployment.”
Environmental organizations took a predictably different view.
“We are encouraged that the Bureau of Land Management is taking steps to balance oil and gas development with the need to protect important wildlife habitat in the western Arctic’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska,” said Dr. Wendy Loya, lead ecologist for the Alaska regional office of the Wilderness Society and a member of the North Slope Science Initiative’s technical advisory panel. “If adopted, the preferred management strategy in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska would protect the calving grounds of the Teshekpuk Lake and western Arctic caribou herds. Essential nesting habitat for thousands of shorebirds, molting habitat for geese, and coastlines used by for walrus haul-outs and polar bear dens would not be developed under this plan. This is the right management choice to give scientists more time to better understand the changing Arctic and to protect habitats used for subsistence.
Pipeline routes?Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, expressed concern that areas designated for special environmental protection might block the construction of a pipeline across the reserve, thus placing at risk the potential development of oil from the Chukchi Sea.
“If the DOI is leaving Kasegaluk Lagoon near Wainwright a special protected area, where many people assume a pipeline will come ashore, what additional conditions are going to have to be met and how feasible is it to get a pipeline in there? The same is true if the pipeline has to cross over a new protected area to the west of Alpine,” Begich said. “We’ve known since the beginning that a pipeline across the NPR-A is a critical piece of the puzzle for successful Arctic development.”
On Aug. 13 Salazar told reporters that it would be possible for a future pipeline to cross a special area provided that the pipeline met the conditions required to protect the environmental values that the special area was designed to address.
“What the plan does … is it still allows a pathway forward for the construction of a pipeline that would take place somewhere across the NPR-A,” Salazar said. “But those decisions would be made in the future. They would be decisions that would be subject to a thorough environmental impact analysis before any decisions are made on any kind of permit that we granted.”
Multiple goalsSalazar said that since 2009 the Department of the Interior’s Arctic planning decisions have been guided by environmental conservation values; the need to ensure that the subsistence needs of Native Alaskans are honored; and the need to enable oil and gas development.
Regardless of the importance of oil and gas development in NPR-A and the importance of the nation’s energy needs, it is equally important to realize that NPR-A includes an iconic landscape comparable in significance to other great landscapes of the United States, Salazar said. And the reserve includes important habitat areas for a variety of wildlife, he said.
“When we talk about the two caribou herds in the National Petroleum Reserve, they’re the largest caribou herds that we have in this nation,” Salazar said. “When you think of one caribou herd at over 350,000 in population and the important subsistence uses that provides, it is an iconic place of our Earth.”
Subsistence valuesRecounting a visit with Edward Itta, previous mayor of the North Slope Borough, including a trip to a subsistence camp and to an ice cellar used to store the products of subsistence hunting, Salazar emphasized the importance of the subsistence values of the Native communities.
“We know that 40 northern and western Alaska Native villages are dependent on the food that comes from the caribou and from the waterfowl and other wildlife that they hunt,” Salazar said.
Going down the path of those who would close the entire NPR-A to all development would mistakenly ignore the importance of U.S. energy security, while opening the entire reserve to development could mar the landscape, leading to the need for hugely expensive restoration, Salazar said.
“We want to make sure that we don’t mess it up,” Salazar said. “It has to be done right so that the conservation values which are so unique to these 22 million acres are in fact honored and are in fact protected.”
Over the next few weeks officials from the Bureau of Land Management will consult with other government agencies — the State of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — that are participating in the development of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the plan, Mike Pool, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, told the Aug. 13 press conference. A final EIS will follow. There will then be a 30-day public comment period before BLM completes its plan and EIS decision, ready for signing off by Salazar.
“We project that decision to occur sometime in December,” Pool said.