Energy

Interior to remove millions of acres from possible oil development in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

The Biden administration said Monday that it will roll back a Trump-era land use plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, removing about 7 million acres from possible development while still keeping about 12 million acres on the table.

The decision, made by a top official in the Interior Department, creates a land use plan that will be managed in line with the 2013 Obama-era plan for the 23-million-acre reserve on Alaska’s North Slope, the agency said in a statement.

It will also include more regulation on industry, such as “more protective lease stipulations and operating procedures,” to protect threatened and endangered species from any development, a statement from the agency said.

The 91-page decision was signed by Laura Daniel-Davis, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Interior’s Land and Minerals Management section.

Monday’s announcement came the day after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland left Alaska following a weeklong trip to the state. But the plans have been in the works since January 2021.

[Seeking to speed development, Alaska aims to take over enforcement of Clean Water Act program from the feds]

The reserve’s eastern section includes land containing a large new oil prospect owned by ConocoPhillips that has been delayed following legal action brought by conservation groups, called the Willow prospect. The Biden administration had backed the project in court.

The new land use plan drew quick condemnation from U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, for eliminating potential for projects that could support Alaska’s economy.

Sullivan said in an interview Monday that it shows Haaland showed “fake” interest as she heard directly from North Slope leaders last week who said they did not support more restrictions in the plan, even as the Interior Department clearly had this decision in waiting.

Sullivan said it also contradicts efforts by President Joe Biden to lower gas prices, because it takes federal land off the table for possible oil exploration.

“The president is not leveling with the American people, and Deb Haaland was certainly not leveling with the Alaskan people,” Sullivan said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that Interior is giving environmental groups what they want while ignoring many Alaska Natives from the North Slope had supported the Trump-era plan.

“We need more domestic resource development, and areas explicitly designated for that purpose should be at the top of the list, not on the chopping block. It is simply shocking that the Biden administration can look at the world, and decide that Alaska is where ‘keep it in the ground’ should apply,” Murkowski said in a statement.

Conservation groups praised the decision as a step in the right direction to combat climate change.

They said it restores protections in certain areas, such as Teshekpuk Lake, a wetlands area that supports loons, eiders and the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

“World events have predictably led to industry lobbyists and the lawmakers they bankroll calling for new domestic oil and gas leasing and production, especially in Arctic Alaska, and in the name of ‘energy security,’ ” Kristen Miller, conservation director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “In reality, the answer to energy security does not lie beneath the thawing Arctic permafrost but in accelerating the shift to clean, renewable sources of power generation.”

One environmental group said the Biden administration’s move didn’t go far enough, however, because it still allows for continued oil development in the reserve.

“Addressing the climate emergency means ending new fossil fuel extraction, and we can’t keep going in the opposite direction,” said Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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