Biden administration officials in the Bureau of Land Management on Monday announced plans to return to Obama-era rules for oil and gas development in the vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the North Slope.
According to a written statement by the BLM Alaska office, attorneys for the agency are expected to file a status report in U.S. District Court of Alaska indicating that BLM leaders want to go back to the 2013 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan, which is essentially the land-use plan for the 23 million-acre reserve. The filing is in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups over the NPR-A land-use plan finalized by Trump administration officials shortly before they left office last January.
The plan approved under Trump opened an additional 7 million acres to industry leasing, or about 30% of the reserve, making a total of about 18.5 million acres on the western North Slope open to development.
For comparison, the previous NPR-A plan approved in 2013 under the Obama administration allowed BLM to lease just more than 11.7 million acres, or almost exactly half of the reserve. That plan closed to oil and gas leasing more than 3.5 million acres — much of which is a vast wetlands complex — in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.
The area is the calving grounds for a distinct population of caribou and is the summer nesting home for large numbers of migratory birds, both of which are important subsistence resources, according to area tribes opposed to oil development there.
However, since 2013 a handful of large oil discoveries have been made around the Teshekpuk Lake area, most notably ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion Willow prospect.
With work currently on hold as its permits are currently under a court-ordered revision, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has said keeping the Willow oil project moving toward development is a top priority for her this year.
Kristen Miller, acting executive director for the Alaska Wilderness League said the Trump administration’s changes to the NPR-A plan were rushed and violated multiple federal environmental laws.
“Returning to the 2013 management plan is the right move and will restore protections to the reserve’s critical special areas, in particular Teshekpuk Lake. Now, especially as it prepares to take public comment on its ‘America the Beautiful’ initiative, we hope the (Biden) administration recognizes the potential for America’s largest single piece of public land to provide landscape-level protection of ecosystems and sustain healthy and diverse wildlife and habitat for the future,” Miller said in response to BLM’s announcement.
For their part, leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the North Slope Borough said in a joint statement that reverting to the 2013 land-use plan “diminishes Alaska Native self-determination by ignoring the needs, concerns and input of the local people who live, work and subsist in and around the NPR-A.”
ASRC President and CEO Rex Rock, Sr. said North Slope leaders have made multiple offers to work with Biden administration officials on issues such as the NPR-A to no avail.
“(Interior) Secretary Haaland and President Biden have chosen, with this decision, to not only ignore the voices of the North Slope Iñupiat but to exclude us from the decision-making process on issues that impact our Iñupiat communities and our culture,” Rock said.
ASRC holds joint subsurface mineral rights with BLM to portions of the NPR-A.
The Trump administration plan mostly opened the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to industry leasing. BLM Alaska officials said at the time that their plan responds to requests from the state and local governments for increased economic opportunities and uses seasonal restrictions on industry activity and other mitigation techniques to minimize the impacts on wildlife from oil exploration.
BLM’s announcement should also essentially end the lawsuit, largely filed to keep the 2013 plan in place.
In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey drastically increased its estimate for the amount of recoverable oil in the NPR-A, largely on the belief that additional Nanushuk oil formations are available in and around the Teshekpuk Lake area. The USGS now estimates there are roughly 8.8 billion barrels of available oil in the reserve and adjacent state lands, up from just 896 million barrels in 2010.