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BLM should ensure high standards for oil drilling in the NPR-A

In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior showed how to "do it right" by establishing a management plan that balanced the needs of conservation and energy development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Now it's time to do it right again, as the federal government sets a precedent for how oil and gas development will occur in the reserve. Not doing so would create unnecessary oil-development sprawl, inhibit wildlife movement, harm subsistence resources, and could foul some of our nation's most important natural habitat.

With ConocoPhillips poised to begin the first oil production on federal lands in the reserve, the Bureau of Land Management must hold industry to the highest possible technological and accountability standards to protect America's high-value public lands. Such lands provide vital habitat for caribou, polar bears and migratory birds and waterfowl.

The rules established for the Greater Mooses Tooth Unit 1 project will set the mold for how future development will occur in the 22-million-acre reserve. The BLM has managed this land since 1976 with a mandate from Congress to protect fish, wildlife, historic or scenic values, and "Special Areas" that contain wilderness and highly important habitat that supports multiple species as well as the Alaska Native villages that depend on the reserve's subsistence resources.

This is the BLM's golden opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to a balanced Integrated Activity Plan which recognized the needs for both development and conservation. The plan set aside nearly half of the reserve for wildlife and habitat, while allowing industry access to 72 percent of the NPR-A's economically recoverable oil.

Unfortunately, BLM appears to have rushed forward on the GMT-1 project without fully studying all potential consequences. The agency denied an extension for a public comment period on a supplementary environmental impact statement, did not adequately review the tradeoffs between a seasonal, roadless project and a year-round drilling program that would require the construction of roads, and it insufficiently analyzed the effects of future development of GMT-1 infrastructure.

Perhaps the BLM has forgotten that then-Sen. Frank Murkowski vowed more than 12 years ago that drilling in the reserve would be done right. He is quoted in the Congressional Record on the subject of seasonal drilling in the reserve:

"Now let me show you how we operate. I said we are not going to have roads. We are not going to open up gravel pits. That is drilling in the Arctic," Murkowski said while extolling the benefits of seasonal ice roads and modern technology.

Using technology should mean that we require ConocoPhillips to use the latest and best technology and to ensure the smallest impact on wildlife, and then to hold the company accountable for doing it right. The BLM and the oil industry owe it to the American people to take care of our public lands and to minimize the negative effects of drilling and oil production. That requires the use of good scientific data and a thorough analysis of all available options.

BLM has a mandate to protect special values and Special Areas within the reserve. This requires the agency to slow down, get this right and ensure that development is done thoughtfully, carefully and to the highest possible standard.

Nicole Whittington-Evans is the Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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