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Trump administration, North Slope Borough eye protected Teshekpuk area for drilling

Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. (BLM photo by Richard Kemnitz, NFO hydrologist)

The Trump administration is taking steps to open millions of acres of protected lands to oil companies in Alaska's Arctic, including near a lake prized by conservation groups where new lands were put off-limits under former President Barack Obama, an Interior Department official said.

The agency has begun talks with the North Slope Borough and state officials aimed at updating the 2013 Obama-era management plan, which left about half the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska closed to drilling, said Joe Balash, Interior's assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

"The (management) plan really restricted a lot of acreage," Balash said in an interview last week. "A lot of people were unhappy about it. The borough was unhappy, the state was unhappy. So it's ripe for a review."

The integrated activity plan, among other sharply expanded protections, roughly doubled the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to about 3.6 million acres, closing most of that area to drilling. The lake and nearby wetlands are considered critical for caribou, polar bears, eiders and other migrating birds.

Susan Culliney,  policy director for Audubon Alaska, said the existing plan balances conservation and oil development, and doesn't need changing.

Industry activity, such as at ConocoPhillips' large Willow prospect, is moving ahead in part of the reserve, she said.

"For scientifically sound reasons, the other half is protected," Culliney said.

The borough, however, was dismayed by the 2013 plan's "overly expansive" protections, Mayor Harry Brower Jr., said in a letter in September addressed to the director of the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska at the time, Bud Cribley.

The BLM plan departed "dramatically" from a borough proposal at the time that sought far fewer restrictions, Brower said.

The borough, dependent on industry revenues, wants part of the 11 million acres that's now off limits to be opened to drilling, including areas with strong oil and gas potential, Brower said. Mitigation measures to protect wildlife and subsistence hunters can be implemented where needed.

That includes some of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area meriting unique protection, Brower said.

"Industry has long maintained, however, that the TLSA has high oil and gas potential, and we realize that industry must go where the oil and gas are located," Brower wrote. "We believe a compromise is possible, wherein more of the TLSA can be opened to leasing, and robust permit stipulations and best management practices would prevent significant impacts to wildlife."

Brower's letter came after an order last year by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, signed in Alaska, calling for a review and revision of the management plan.

Balash said the formal process to revise the plan has not begun. "We're still at the discussion level" with the borough and state, he said.

An updated management plan won't be completed in time for a 2018 lease sale in the petroleum reserve, he said. But millions of currently closed acres could be made available in time for a lease sale in late 2019, he said.

How much of the Teshekpuk area would be opened is uncertain. Whatever is proposed will be done with input from the borough, state and others, he said.

"The area has tremendous potential geologically, but supports a pretty diverse set of birds and caribou activity," he said. "It's going to be crafted carefully."

Last December, the federal government offered half the petroleum reserve for leasing — every allowable tract — in an unusually large lease sale that adhered to the 2013 plan. Oil explorers showed little interest in the sale.

If an updated plan opens leasing in areas with strong potential for a discovery, including Teshekpuk, the industry will turn out, Balash said.

"As private industry has made clear, there's a definite demand from the market for this additional acreage," Balash said earlier this month, speaking at a Heartland Institute energy conference in New Orleans, as Alaska Public Media reported.

The conservative and libertarian think tank is recognized for raising doubts about man-made climate change.

Culliney, with Audubon Alaska, said the Teshekpuk area's globally important habitat means a full-scale environmental review and public comment are critical for any revision effort.

"Audubon will certainly be there to offer science and data" to show why strong protections are warranted, she said.

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