More Arctic drilling? Interior Department may undo Obama-era set-asides

Published: Nov. 28, 2018 at 7:35 PM AKST
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Federal land managers are reviewing Obama-era decisions that protected large swathes of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska from development.

The redos won’t necessarily reduce the previously set-aside rules — but nearly everyone, from environmental activists to oil company officials, believe that will be the result.

Two Alaska officials asked for a review of the policy — Andy Mack, the outgoing state commissioner of natural resources, and North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower. Their joint letter, dated Nov. 2, said the revisions were suggested by the Arctic activity of oil companies and the needs of local residents.

“We have been reflecting on the new discoveries and technology being used on the North Slope,” they wrote. “We have been listening to communities that balance the need to lower costs of goods and services with a need to preserve subsistence traditions.”

The letter struck a chord in Washington, D.C. In a prepared statement sent to reporters, the U.S. Department of the Interior said that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s promise to “jump-start development” in the reserve could be met by the revisions.

Zinke’s boss, President Donald Trump, has said that more oil should be produced from public lands like the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

The reserve is huge — at 22.1 million acres, it’s larger than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east, where developers and preservationists have been fighting for decades.

Oil is already being produced in the NPRA, where drilling is less controversial because of its history — it was originally set aside in 1923 for the U.S. Navy because of its potential for fueling ships.

Between the reserve and the refuge is Prudhoe Bay and other established oil fields. ConocoPhillips has hopes that its Greater Mooses Tooth field number 1, in production in the NPRA since October, will reach up to 30,000 barrels a day, while its Willow discovery, also in the reserve, could reach 100,000 barrels a day after it delivers its first oil in the middle of the next decade.

ConocoPhillips, which won’t talk about what additional land it would like to lease for competitive reasons, says that it would like to see less set aside.

“We are generally supportive of making more lands available for leasing, and as such, are supportive of the DOI’s efforts,” company spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said in a prepared statement.

But the company also said it favored some protections, like those around Teshekpuk Lake, a huge body of water in the northeast part of the reserve and the site of an Arctic research center.

Susan Culliney, Audubon Alaska’s policy director, said that protecting Teshekpuk Lake is important, but so are other tundra lakes where geese seek safety when they molt.

“A lot of the geese congregate in the area to the north of Teshekpuk Lake — there are all these little tundra ponds up there,” she said. “And when birds go through their molt, they lose all their feathers, they become vulnerable to predators, they need lots of nutritious grasses, so the area north of Teshekpuk Lake offers them safety and food — a really great place to undergo a molt — if you’re a goose.”

The previous management plans struck a balance between development and preservation, she said.

“There are areas where oil and gas development is occurring but, with the NPRA the size of Indiana, surely there are areas that should be for birds and wildlife,” Culliney said.

In a prepared statement, the Audubon society said: “Recent statements from Department of Interior officials indicate the Trump administration wants to use the new planning process to roll back protections for sensitive areas in the NPR-A that are currently off-limits to oil and gas leasing. This includes Teshekpuk Lake.”

Culliney said she plans to monitor the planning process through the environmental impact statement and the integrated activity plan for the NPRA. Environmental groups can file a lawsuit, she said — but not till the final environmental impact statement is complete.

“The existing plan has been doing a good job, striking that balance between development and conservation,” she said. “We don’t see a good reason to open the plan at this time.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the reserve, is inviting public comments through Jan. 7 on its plans and will hold public scoping meetings at six North Slope Borough communities, in Fairbanks, and in Anchorage at the Campbell Creek Science Center on Dec. 10 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Written comments can be mailed to: BLM Alaska State Office, Attention — NPR-A IAM/EAS, 222 West 7th Ave. Anchorage, AK 99513.