A federal agency on Thursday released a final management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, proposing to make 7 million additional acres of land on the North Slope open to potential oil and gas development.
Conservation groups decried the move, saying the Bureau of Land Management plan threatens prized areas that were protected in a 2013 plan, including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area considered important habitat for caribou, polar bears, eiders and other migrating birds.
State and federal officials expressed support for the new plan, saying it balances conservation with opportunities for development in the 23-million-acre reserve.
“NPR-A holds billions of barrels of oil that will ensure the continued operation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and support good jobs for thousands of Alaskans,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The plan would make 18.7 million acres available for oil and gas leasing under the alternative preferred by the agency. A final decision could be issued late next month.
Previously, 11.8 million acres had been available.
The agency in November released a draft plan for public comment.
The federal agency’s preferred alternative was not part of the draft plan, leading to criticism from conservation groups who say the public did not have a chance to comment on it. The alternative expands the acreage available for oil and gas leasing compared to the other alternatives, according to a statement from the Alaska Wilderness League and several other conservation groups.
“With a disregard for science and the climate reality the planet faces, this is no time to be dismantling conservation protections for fragile Arctic landscapes which wildlife and people depend,” said David Krause, Alaska assistant director for The Wilderness Society.
The Interior Department said that public input led to the new proposal.
Oil and gas leasing could occur in the entire Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, according to the plan.
The plan says impacts to caribou calving and bird habitat would be reduced with stipulations that include “no-surface occupancy.” Horizontal drilling would be allowed below ground, initiated from outside the area’s boundaries.
Limits on when development will occur would also be implemented to help protect wildlife, Interior said.
“The BLM worked with state, local, tribal, and private sector stakeholders to propose management prescriptions that achieve a balance between conservation stewardship, being a good neighbor, and responsibly developing our natural resources to boost local and national economies,” said Chad Padgett, BLM Alaska director.
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