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Mitigation can ease effects of oil production in petroleum reserve

  • Author: Nicole Whittington-Evans
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 10, 2016
  • Published August 10, 2016

A northern section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the state’s North Slope. (ANNE RAUP / ADN archive 1997)

Last week the U.S. Bureau of Land Management published a notice of intent to pursue an environmental review of ConocoPhillips' proposed GMT-2 project in the western Arctic's National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This comes on the heels of the first commercial oil production now under way in the 93-year history of the reserve.

As part of this change to the region, the federal government and other stakeholders, including the oil industry, are developing a strategy to address ways to offset the negative effects of development, and balance energy development and conservation values on this unique public land.

The concept is a simple one: Public lands belong to all Americans, so energy companies that profit from them should work with government agencies and stakeholders to help compensate for the unavoidable impacts caused by their operations.

This is especially important for Alaska communities that depend on a healthy, functioning ecosystem to maintain their residents' subsistence way of life and sustain their cultures.

Though originally established as a "petroleum reserve," the reserve is home to a number of communities that depend on the area's globally significant wildlife resources, including caribou, waterfowl and fish. To ensure abundant subsistence resources for future generations, those resources must be protected today. With oil development starting just a short distance from Nuiqsut in the Greater Mooses Tooth Unit, a regional mitigation strategy that effectively offsets the negative effects of development will be key.

Mitigation actions help ensure natural processes continue while development goes forward in the right places and in the right way. Done right, an official mitigation strategy would be beneficial to industry, subsistence and conservation interests. It would create greater certainty in permitting for industry, reduce conflicts among stakeholders, protect subsistence resources and establish balance between development and conservation, ensuring resilient ecosystems as our climate warms. It would also ensure BLM implements the terms of the NPR-A's overall management plan — the 2013 Integrated Activity Plan, which aims to strike a balance between conservation and development.

[Report: Interior Dept. caved to political pressure on NPR-A development]

BLM has allowed development to proceed in the reserve, and, in doing so, the agency needs to ensure protection for high-value lands and habitat at least for the life of the impacts of these energy projects. The regional mitigation strategy will provide this opportunity and greater certainty for all stakeholders, reducing future conflicts.

There is a lot of work still to be done as the reserve's mitigation strategy is developed and finalized. Coordination among federal agencies and all stakeholders in the western Arctic will be key to the strategy's effectiveness and to ensuring that the mitigation requirements placed on industry are achievable.

The regional mitigation strategy developed for the reserve will likely serve as a model for other public lands across the nation, so we must get it right. But most importantly, we have to guarantee that the strategy allows for just and effective offsets to development, and America's public lands are managed so their overall values remain unharmed.

BLM is poised to release a draft regional mitigation strategy for the western Arctic, and the agency will accept public comment on the draft.  It will be important for BLM to hear from the public about the need to balance conservation with development in the western Arctic. Go to the BLM website for updates on this process and to submit comments.

Through sound planning and public involvement, we can ensure development and conservation are truly balanced in the western Arctic, subsistence resources and areas are protected and energy development moves forward responsibly.

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

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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