New integrated activity plan for NPR-A finalized; ROD is issued
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The federal Bureau of Land Management has finalized a new integrated activity plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, expanding acreage available for leasing to some 18.6 million acres. In a release on the Jan. 4 record of decision for the new IAP, BLM said it includes safeguards including no surface occupancy, controlled surface use, timing limitations and provides for new and emerging technologies to access subsurface resources while maintaining surface values.
BLM said the new IAP was signed by the secretary of the Interior Dec. 31.
RODIn the record of decision BLM said the plan balances the responsibilities of the secretary of the Interior “to provide oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development consistent with the total energy needs of the nation and to protect and conserve the important surface resources and uses of the Reserve.”
The agency said the decision adopts the preferred alternative identified in the June 2020 final IAP/EIS with clarifications and modifications outlined in an appendix.
Approximately 18,581,000 acres are made available for leasing under the IAP, and all NPR-A land is “available for applications for pipelines and other infrastructure necessary for potential owners of offshore leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to bring oil and gas across the NPR-A to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and similar gas related infrastructure that could be built in the years ahead.”
There are “performance-based required operating procedures and lease stipulations” in the IAP for all oil and gas activities, and in some cases for non-oil and gas activities within NPR-A.
Boundaries of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and the Utukok River Uplands Special Area are adjusted “based on the most current information about the distribution of important species in the NPR-A” and the Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon special areas are maintained.
Raptor protections in the Colville River Special Area “now apply to the entire NPR-A, so the Colville River Special Area is consequently eliminated because its associated protections are no longer unique to the Special Area.”
The IAP also adopts decisions regarding visual resource management and off-highway vehicle use, with restrictions on some 9 million acres under VRM, and off-highway vehicle use allowed year-round to support subsistence activities, but casual or non-subsistence travel limited by weight of vehicle and “to times when frost and snow cover is sufficient to protect the tundra, and inter-village travel is limited to times when frost and snow cover is sufficient to protect the tundra.”
Statutory backgroundBLM’s responsibilities to manage NPR-A are under authority from the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, BLM said, and the NPRPA requires the secretary of the Interior “to conduct oil and gas leasing and development in the NPR-A.”
NPR-A is exempted from the preparation of resource management plans under a 1981 statute, BLM said, and because of that exemption and because “the NPRPA is a dominant-use statute, the IAP is not being developed as a resource management plan and does not consider sustained yield and multiple use” and “consistent with the NPRPA, the NPR-A IAP/EIS addresses a narrower range of management than a resource management plan,” and as such “makes no decisions on opening lands to hard rock or coal mining.”
Areas for leasingThere are some 22.8 million acres of subsurface managed by BLM in NPR-A, of which 18.6 million are being made available for oil and gas leasing, with some 132,000 acres in the northeastern part of NPR-A not available for leasing until 10 years after the signing of the ROD, when a 10-year deferral in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area expires.
Under the new IAP, “new infrastructure would be allowable in over 13 million acres, including in much of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area,” with limited new infrastructure allowed in some 5 million acres “along certain river corridors and in certain parts of the Special Areas.”
Most new permanent infrastructure is prohibited in some 4.3 million acres - the majority of the Utukok River Uplands Special Area and a small area around Teshekpuk Lake.
BLM said infrastructure prohibitions do not apply in some cases:
*Subsistence structures - camps and cabins;
*Community infrastructure such as roads, power lines, fuel pipelines and communications owned and maintained by or on behalf of the North Slope Borough, city government, the State of Alaska, a tribe or an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation;
*Single season ice infrastructure;
*Exploratory wells drilled and abandoned in a single season;
*Infrastructure in support of science and public safety; and
*Construction, renovation or replacement of facilities on existing gravel pads or previously disturbed sites. “New infrastructure at such sites may be permitted if the facilities will promote safety or environmental protection.”
Congressional delegationAlaska’s congressional delegation welcomed the new IAP.
“This robust plan recognizes the purposes of the NPR-A and will restore reasonable access to one of the most promising areas on the North Slope, while also taking care to ensure adequate protection of ecologically sensitive areas,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a Jan. 4 statement. “This strikes the right balance and fulfills the statutory purposes of the petroleum reserve - to produce energy for our state and country.”
“As we look to build back and achieve a strong economic recovery for Alaska, I welcome the new NPR-A IAP, which provides a great opportunity to fill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, keep good-paying jobs for thousands of hard-working Alaskans, and support our energy security,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. “Responsibly developing the vast oil and gas reserves on federal lands in our state will bolster our economic well-being while we also protect and preserve the environment we call home.”
“The final Integrated Activity Plan is welcome news for our state and the North Slope communities whose livelihoods depend on energy exploration,” said Congressman Don Young. “This roadmap will help pave the way toward greater upward mobility and economic opportunity, particularly in our Alaska Native communities.”
Opposition to new IAPThere was opposition.
Environmental groups - the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Alaska, Earthjustice, National Audubon Society, Trustees for Alaska, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Conservation Lands Foundation- issued a joint statement which said, among other concerns, that the new IAP “endangers the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, one of the most productive wetland complexes in the world, by opening that entire area to oil and gas leasing.”
“This plan was adopted as part of a rushed process that prioritized oil and gas interests over public concerns,” the groups said.
“Multiple lawsuits have already been filed challenging the adequacy of the decision and BLM’s failure to protect sensitive resources and uses in the Reserve,” they said.
Among suits filed, two in the federal District Court in Alaska challenge the legality of BLM’s FEIS for the new NPR-A integrated activity plan (see story in Sept. 6 issue of PN).
An earlier IAP, issued in 2013 under the Obama administration, made 11.8 million of NPR-A’s 23 million acres available for oil and gas leasing, and placed some large environmentally sensitive areas off limits, including areas around Teshekpuk Lake, Smith Bay and Admiralty, now thought to span an area particularly prospective for new oil discoveries. These areas - especially Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding area - are important as breeding grounds for waterfowl and support Arctic wildlife such as caribou.
- KRISTEN NELSON