Revised management plan released for NPR-A
A huge chunk of Arctic Alaska is a big step closer to having a new land-use plan that could open millions of additional acres to oil and gas exploration.
The Bureau of Land Management released the 485-page draft National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan Nov. 21 to resounding support from Alaska’s congressional delegation.
BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett, who formerly served on Rep. Don Young’s staff, said in a prepared statement that revising the management provisions for the 23 million-acre federal reserve in the western Arctic is one of several actions the agency is taking to promote responsible energy development in the state. BLM is also leading the environmental impact statement review for the highly contentious Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain oil and gas leasing plan.
“With advancements in technology and increased knowledge of the area, it was prudent to develop a new plan that provides greater economic development of our resources while still providing protections for important resources and subsistence access,” Padgett said.
The existing NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan was finalized in early 2013 under the Obama administration and has been roundly criticized by development proponents for restricting industry access to large swaths of highly prospective oil acreage, some of which are currently deemed to be critical habitat for caribou and waterfowl populations that are important subsistence food sources for nearby village residents.
Sen. Dan Sullivan said the draft NPR-A plan is “welcome progress towards evaluating how to best realize the potential of Alaska’s vast energy resources.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski stressed the options in the revised plan better align with the statutory purpose of the petroleum reserve, which was first designated by President Warren Harding in 1923 when it was controlled by the U.S. Navy.
“We have recently learned a great deal about the abundant resources of the NPR-A, and updating the deeply flawed (2013 plan) to provide greater access is necessary to reflect our opportunities for responsible development,” Murkowski said in a formal statement.
Today, about 52 percent, or 11.8 million acres of the NPR-A are open to industry. The vast majority of the acreage currently under lease is held by ConocoPhillips, which is in the environmental permitting process for its large Willow oil prospect in the northeast portion of the reserve and is also working on smaller projects in the area. Expected to cost between $4 billion to $6 billion to fully build out, the Willow project could produce upwards of 100,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, according to the company.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke first directed department agencies to reevaluate the reserve’s oil and gas potential as well as changes to the management plan in May 2017.
State officials under both former Gov. Bill Walker and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration have pushed Interior to revise the 2013 NPR-A plan and the state is also looking at ways to link several communities in the reserve with year-round road connections.
In December 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a resource assessment for the NPR-A in which the agency concluded the reserve and nearby state lands could hold some 8.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil, primarily based on the recent Nanushuk discoveries in the area. A 2010 NPR-A assessment projected a mean resource estimate for the reserve of just 896 million barrels.
Interior officials announced BLM would begin analyzing changes to the NPR-A plan about a year ago.
The first option to change management in the reserve, Alternative B, would actually cull the amount of leasable land by about 400,000 acres to 11.4 million acres, but it would provide for two north-south pipeline corridors through the 3.6 million-acre Teshekpuk Lake Special Area that could allow industry to transport oil and gas from offshore leases to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
Caelus Energy holds near shore State of Alaska leases in Smith Bay, just to the northwest of Teshekpuk Lake. The small Texas-based independent announced in 2016 that based on exploratory drilling it believes the Smith Bay prospect could hold as much as of 6 billion barrels of currently stranded oil.
The area surrounding Teshekpuk Lake has been the primary focus of the land-use debate in the NPR-A, as it is important habitat for the Teshekpuk and Western Arctic caribou herds and a major breeding area for large populations of waterfowl in the summer. However, it is also considered one of the most highly prospective areas for oil and gas deposits largely based on the boom of recent Nanushuk formation oil discoveries — including ConocoPhillips’ Willow — in the region. BLM would also recommend 12 qualifying rivers in the NPR-A for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River System under Alternative B.
Alternative C would open an additional 5.3 million acres to exploration, thus making about 75 percent of the reserve open for leasing. It would also provide for one pipeline corridor through the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.
The third and final alternative considered to expand leasable acreage would make 18.3 million acres, or about 80 percent of the reserve, open for leasing and that would include the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.
Impacts to caribou calving and migratory bird habitat could be mitigated through the use of lease stipulations that would place restrictions on permanent facilities in certain areas limit the timing when exploration activity could occur as well, according to BLM.
The draft plan also includes a “no action” alternative to maintain the status quo as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Each of the alternatives to change land-use management in the reserve would eliminate the Colville River Special Area, which provides habitat protections over 2.4 million acres adjacent to the river. The Colville River makes up much of the eastern boundary of the NPR-A.
The Wilderness Society Assistant Alaska Director David Krause said the conservation group will be fully engaged in the public EIS process primarily to ensure the Colville River and Teshekpuk Lake areas are protected.
Krause said he’s not surprised by the main aspects of the alternatives after an initial review of the draft, but he emphasized that major changes to the current plan are likely to lead to more policy battles that won’t further industry’s interests either.
“Ultimately, deconstructing the existing plan that is very science-based, I think, is going to create an environment of increased conflict and I think greater uncertainty for business,” he said.
BLM recommended opening the entire 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain to leasing in the final lease sale EIS the agency published in September for the area.
Representatives for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a regional tribal government, declined to comment on the draft NPR-A plan. A spokesman for the North Slope Borough said borough officials would focus on reviewing the document after the Thanksgiving holiday.
A 60-day public comment period on the draft NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan runs through Jan. 21.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].