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Sen. Murkowski runs her own Arctic drilling 'bait-and-switch'

Jeff Fair
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Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Oct. 9 commentary (“The bait-and-switch on Alaska energy”) presented an incomplete view of the NPR-A’s management in Alaska’s western Arctic. Perhaps she’s not familiar enough with the legislation -- the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act passed by Congress in 1976 under President Gerald Ford -- that re-established and renamed the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 as our National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

That change in management (from the Navy to the Interior Department) for these 23 million acres of federal land belonging to all Americans included a number of congressional stipulations.  In its formal act, Congress directed the Interior Secretary to establish “conditions, restrictions, and prohibitions” to protect significant fish, wildlife, subsistence, recreational, historical, and scenic resources of the reserve. Congress even identified two of the current Special Areas as examples of places warranting “maximum protection” under law. Though four Special Areas have been delineated and now additional acreage proposed, no permanent conservation measures for these or any parts of the reserve have been made in the 36 years since the act was passed.

Under the proposal recently announced by Secretary Salazar, much of the reserve will remain open for drilling and pipelines, including territory that contains a vast majority of the area’s oil (all except an area containing 10 days’ worth of U.S. oil use), thus providing the responsible balance Congress called for. Certainly no one can legitimately describe following the letter of the law in an Act of Congress as “obstructionist.” Instead, Senator Murkowski might recognize such management as, in her own words, “common sense” and “responsible resource development” in a region containing some very precious subsistence, scenic, historical, and wildlife resources including the calving grounds of Alaska’s largest caribou herd.

Conservationists have certainly not paralyzed the efforts of resource development for decades in our Arctic region, as the senator suggests. What a silly thing to allege, when the oil infrastructure attached to Prudhoe Bay has grown to cover 1,000 square miles with over 200 drill pads, 20 airports, 27 production facilities, and 36 gravel mines. Nor has our current administration stopped progress up there as she claims. New oil lease sales in the NPR-A were offered in 2011, and another sale is scheduled for next month; the winter of 2011-2012 was forecast to be the busiest for drilling new wells on the North Slope since 1969; a ConocoPhillips proposal to cross into the NPR-A with a bridge and road to begin new development was permitted; and of course we have Shell drilling in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas right now. I would not call that stopping the progress of oil development.

The new BLM plan simply approaches the balance between energy development and conservation of subsistence resources, wild lands, and wildlife in the NPR-A that Congress required in 1976. It offers plenty of oil production and pipeline construction for off-shore drilling -- scary as Arctic offshore drilling is. (And by the way, neither protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge nor conservation measures within the NPR-A prompted drilling in the Arctic Ocean, as has been suggested. Big Oil had already dropped many of its leases in the NPR-A and wanted the Arctic Ocean for drilling anyway and anytime, with or without the Refuge.)

The senator also raises that time-honored issue of working toward American energy independence, of not depending upon OPEC and other oil imports.  I like that ideal, too, but my question is this:  If we truly need all these fossil-fuel resources for U.S. energy independence and self-sufficiency, then why would we be in the business of selling Alaska oil and gas and coal overseas? The issue here, sadly, is short-term economics, not future energy independence or American patriotism.

Conservation and environmental safety in balance with energy development on all fronts should be our goal. Conservation oversight in any developed area of our proud nation is an act of patriotism: simple good stewardship of our land.

Jeff Fair lives on Lazy Mountain in Palmer. He has ventured into the Alaska Arctic many times as a wildlife biologist and freelance writer and has researched and written many technical and popular articles about the region. An article he wrote specifically about NPR-A planning appeared in Audubon magazine's Nov.-Dec. 2011 edition. His work also appears in the collections Arctic Voices and On Arctic Ground, both released in July.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.