Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
September 2023

Vol. 28, No.38 Week of September 17, 2023

BLM proposes new regs for NPR-A, incorporate IAP land restrictions

Alan Bailey

for Petroleum News

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing a major update to the regulations for oil and gas leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The new regulations would incorporate restrictions on access to five special areas in the refuge, as specified in the current NPR-A integrated activity plan. This version of the IAP was issued in April 2022 and reduced the acreage available for oil and gas leasing from 18.7 million acres to 11.8 million acres.

The terms of the current IAP correspond to those of an IAP approved in February 2013. Another version of the IAP approved in 2020 had made 18.7 million acres of NPR-A available.

The formal incorporation of the 11.8 million acre limit into the regulations for NPR-A would presumably mean that future IAPs will not be able to expand the accessible acreage unless BLM makes another revision to the regulations.

The proposed rule would have no impact on existing oil and gas activities in NPR-A, BLM said. However, future oil and gas leasing would have to conform with land use restrictions identified in maps published in the 2022 IAP, unless BLM makes modifications to these maps in accordance with the terms of the new regulations.

BLM is seeking public comments on its proposals.

Opposition to tight restrictions on access

Given the restricted acreage open for oil and gas leasing, Alaska lawmakers have expressed condemnation of what they see as unjustified limitations on Alaska's access to oil and gas resources that underpin the state's economy.

"The NPR-A, which is explicitly designated for energy production, turns 100 this year," said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in response to the BLM announcement. "Now the Biden administration, at a time when America and our allies need Alaska's resources more than ever, has decided to go their own way by further locking Alaska down while refusing to consult with the Alaska Natives who actually live on the North Slope."

I- upiat Community of the Arctic Slope, North Slope Borough, and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. expressed their annoyance at the BLM announcement, saying that BLM had not consulted with North Slope communities over its proposals.

"The elected regional I- upiat leadership of the North Slope disagree with the Biden administration's decision today to restrict indigenous access to 13 million acres within the NPR-A and cancel oil and gas lease sales in our region," the organizations wrote. "This decision puts the economic future of the North Slope I- upiat in jeopardy and undermines Alaska Native peoples' right to self-determination. These decisions, largely driven by those who have no connection to our land or cultural heritage, further undermine the rights of indigenous people across the nation."

Regulations not updated for 45 years

BLM says that it has not updated the regulations governing NPR-A surface resources since the original rule for management of the surface was issued 45 years ago. Moreover, the legal standards and procedures that govern the reserve are scattered across several statutes, regulations, plans and guidance documents, the agency wrote. In addition to providing a comprehensive guide to managing NPR-A, the new rule would incorporate statutory provisions that post-date the current regulations. Revised regulations would improve the standards and procedures for balancing oil and gas activities with the protection of surface resources, the agency wrote.

Special areas

At the core of surface protection regulations in the new rule are what are referred to as "special areas," areas that are delineated for the protection of "a wide range of significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, historical, and scenic values." The original NPR-A regulations incorporated three special areas: Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River Uplands and the Colville River Special Area. In 1999 the Department of the Interior expanded the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas. In 2004 the department designated a fourth special area, the Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area, and in 2013 added a fifth special area, the Peard Bay Special Area. In 2013 the agency also expanded the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area by a further 2 million acres while also expanding the Utukok Uplands Special Area.

ConocoPhillips' approved plan for developing the Willow oilfield in the NPR-A includes one drill pad inside the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

Although only the first three special areas are included in the current NPR-A regulations, BLM has been managing all five special areas in accordance with NPR-A integrated activity plans that meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. However, BLM now seeks to include the specifications and rules for all of the special areas in its new, revised regulations. Thus, the new regulations would limit the NPR-A acreage available for oil and gas leasing to 11.8 million acres.

The proposed new rule would require BLM to manage special areas to support subsistence use of the areas by rural residents.

And, unlike the existing regulations, the proposed regulations include standards and procedures for designating and amending special areas.

Other issues in the regulations

The proposed new regulations encompass a number of issues, in addition to dealing with special areas. For example, the regulations would clarify that BLM is responsible for managing subsurface resources, rather than just surface resources, in NPR-A. The regulations would establish new standards and procedures for protecting surface resources and would formally require BLM to maintain an IAP for the reserve. Other modifications would improve the clarity of meaning of some of the regulations.

The regulations need to comply, in particular, with the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, the primary federal statute governing the management of NPR-A. The NPRPA requires the secretary of the Interior to "conduct an expeditious program of competitive leasing of oil and gas" in NPR-A while also "mitigating foreseeable and significantly adverse impacts on the surface resources." The NPRPA also authorizes the secretary of the interior to designate special areas inside NPR-A.


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