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No more cooperation from Alaska on NPR-A development plans?

In a letter dated Sept. 11, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell informed U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the state would immediately withdraw as a "cooperating agency" from federal development plans for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Read the letter (PDF)

Parnell told Salazar that Interior's proposed management plan in the area "shows a complete lack of respect for the views of the State." Parnell said that Salazar should have taken into consideration comments, provided by the state, which supported "full development of oil and gas resources in the NPR-A, with reasonable mitigation measures."

Because those comments were not considered, as required by regulations, the only option is to start over, Parnell said.

Requests for comment from agents of the Interior Department and U.S. Bureau of Land Management were not immediately returned.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is a 23-million-acre swath of Arctic tundra owned by the Feds that's west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope. It holds trillions of cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and anywhere from 336 million to 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, though geologists employed by the state of Alaska contend the USGS estimate is low-balled. What's certain is the amount of oil that's "recoverable" fluctuates and depends on per-barrel prices.

'The preferred alternative'

When Salazar announced what's known as the federal "preferred alternative" NPR-A management plan on a trip to Alaska last month, he said it struck the right balance between development and conservation and would "help the industry bring energy safely to market from this remote location while also protecting wildlife and subsistence rights of Alaska Natives." 

Parnell disagreed. The governor noted that Interior's choice for NPR-A, which was one of four management plans under consideration, only opens 12 million acres -- or about half of the total size of the reserve -- to development. Parnell thinks it overly restrictive and believes it will block off millions of acres of the reserve that might otherwise produce hydrocarbons.

In the letter to Salazar, Parnell noted that the National Petroleum Reserve was created in 1923 specifically for hydrocarbon production -- not, he said, to designate wilderness area.

"The only way to cure the defects in the process is to completely start over," Parnell wrote in the letter. "If you choose to restart the process, please take the time and effort to provide a truly cooperative process with the State of Alaska and others."

A pipeline runs through it

The plan does not "foreclose" building a pipeline that Royal Dutch Shell plans for transporting potential oil reserves in the Arctic Ocean to the trans-Alaska pipeline, Salazar said.

Shell was still evaluating the new NPR-A management plan in late August, Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said at the time. On the positive side, Slaiby said, Interior was no longer considering an earlier proposal that would have restricted development even more. But the new plan remains a concern.

"When you hear the (Interior) secretary say, 'well it doesn't' -- and I can't quote him exactly -- 'doesn't foreclose the possibility of a pipeline across NPR-A,' that's not exactly a ringing endorsement," Slaiby said.

ConocoPhillips has plans for drilling in NPR-A. A spokesperson said Conoco was "disappointed" that the Interior Department chose "the least desirable" of all options on the table. The "proposed alternative" also takes a significant amount of acreage "off the market" for future leasing, Conoco said.

It's unclear what, if any, real effects will result from Parnell's letter. One environmental group that has actively opposed development at NPR-A and on other federally-owned lands in Arctic Alaska called the governor's decision "purely political." Nicole Whittington-Evans, regional director of Alaska for The Wilderness Society, said Parnell's letter intended to undermine the “scientifically sound planning process.”

The Interior Department has been working on a management plan for NPR-A since 2010. Salazar's plan selection followed the release last March of a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on development in the reserve. The final EIS, which will focus on the recent plan, will undergo a 30-day review period before Salazar will issue a final decision.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com