Today, Alaskans are one step closer to a generational goal: the fulfillment of a 40-year fight toward the first lease sale in the non-wilderness Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
On Nov. 17, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management published a call for nominations for tracts throughout the 1.6 million-acre program area to be included in an upcoming lease sale, opening a monthlong period for input. A 30-day notice of a sale, which could occur in mid-January, could be issued once the call for nominations closes.
This announcement comes three months after BLM released its Record of Decision, or ROD, for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program, a significant milestone itself in our decades-long battle to unlock one of the most prospective areas in all of North America.
In 1980, Congress designated eight million acres of federal wilderness in ANWR and expanded its total size to nearly 20 million acres. Congress also identified the Coastal Plain as uniquely prospective for oil and gas and set it aside for further exploration and potential development. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act called for robust studies of the area, with an expectation that congressional action authorizing some level of development would soon follow. The ROD released nearly 40 full years later means we are finally seeing the benefit of that bargain — and it means the opportunity for exploration and production in the Coastal Plain is now real.
This program was made possible by a title added to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 — the culmination of decades of legislative effort from the Alaska delegation and countless Alaskans who called, wrote and testified to make the case for responsible development. When critics say this process was rushed, it should give you good reason to think twice about some of their other claims, because that is simply not the case.
The ROD provides a robust, balanced and defensible plan for the Coastal Plain. It authorizes leasing across the entire area, providing flexibility for explorers. It also provides a comprehensive approach to protect wildlife and the environment. In fact, the plan includes restrictions for more than half of the total area that can be offered for lease.
To protect water bodies, polar bears, the Porcupine caribou herd and subsistence users who rely upon the land to feed their families, the ROD restricts when and where lease activities can occur on 60% of the Coastal Plain. Some 360,000 acres are off-limits for surface development and, with some overlap, 720,000 acres have timing limitations that restrict activities to certain times of the year.
Any leases that are issued will also have to comply with the 11 stipulations and 44 required operating procedures contained in the ROD. These protections were developed by BLM in consultation with regional communities, as the agency conducted a comprehensive environmental analysis, and are based on the protections already in place in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that we know work.
This is on top of the primary limitation we wrote directly into the legislation — that no more than 2,000 federal acres can be developed across the entire 1.6 million-acre area. For perspective, that is roughly one ten-thousandth of ANWR. Furthermore, when a developer wants to explore or develop a lease, they will have to secure additional federal, state and local approvals for each specific project.
With the recent announcement, we could see a lease sale in mid-January. Global oil markets are challenged right now, but in Alaska we know taking on a challenge today can lead to enormous benefits tomorrow.
Leases in the hands of just a couple intrepid explorers could mean hundreds of jobs in the coming years as prospects develop, and then many hundreds more during development. Over time, we could see vital throughput for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and billions of dollars in new revenues for the state budget and the Permanent Fund.
Alaska already holds world records for extended reach underground drilling, where one rig operating from one small pad reaches resources that are miles away with no surface disturbance. The Coastal Plain leasing program will only accelerate those technologies, building on the progress of development pads that now occupy a minimal footprint.
We do not believe we should delay this opportunity while the U.S. still imports millions of barrels of oil each day. We understand that current market dynamics have reduced investment levels, but that could lead to very different imbalances in the years ahead. We also recognize the world will continue to rely on oil for not just years, but decades to come. Both our country and the environment will be better off for every barrel we produce here in Alaska, with our superlative environmental and safety standards.
The promise of our rich resource potential now comes with a plan. Let’s get to work.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young are the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
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