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Trump administration finalizes plan to expand oil drilling opportunities by millions of acres in Arctic Alaska reserve

In another last-minute move, the Trump administration on Monday finalized a plan to dramatically increase the land available for oil and gas drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an effort already facing legal challenges from groups concerned about threats to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds, climate change and subsistence resources.

The Bureau of Land Management on Monday announced that it had finalized a new activity plan for the 23-million-acre reserve in the Arctic, with a signing by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on New Year’s Eve.

The reserve, the largest area of federally managed land in the U.S., is located west of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in an area containing large new oil discoveries, including ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect.

The new activity plan will allow oil and gas leasing across 18.6 million acres — up by 7 million acres from a 2013 plan completed during the Obama administration.

The plan includes protections for the environment, the agency said in a statement. New activity such as drilling would require additional government review before it could occur.

Oil and gas leasing could occur in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, according to the plan, but with limits on surface use, among other protections. The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is considered highly important wildlife habitat. Timing restrictions would also help protect wildlife there, the agency said.

“We developed a plan that is responsive to state and local government requests and needs,” said Chad Padgett, the BLM’s state director for Alaska. “Our team of subject matter experts worked diligently to provide a robust environmental review that achieves a balance between conservation stewardship, being a good neighbor, and responsibly developing our natural resources to boost local and national economies.”

The announcement comes as the Trump administration moves swiftly to finalize plans promoting future development in other parts of Alaska, as well. On Wednesday, it will hold the federal government’s first-ever oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Conservation groups are also fighting that effort in court.

The expanded acreage in the petroleum reserve opens much of northern Alaska to the possibility of oil and gas leasing, the Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement. The conservation group has joined others in a lawsuit to halt the expansion of available acreage in the petroleum reserve.

“More drilling will just exacerbate the climate crisis in a region that is already experiencing warming twice as fast as anywhere on the planet. It is bad for the Western Arctic, bad for people and bad for wildlife,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

A federal estimate in 2017 estimated the petroleum reserve holds 8.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 25 trillion feet of recoverable natural gas.

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