Revised BLM plan opens 80% of NPR-A to development
Interior Department officials released an aggressive plan to open millions more acres on the North Slope to oil and gas leasing June 25, the latest effort in the Trump administration’s ongoing push to encourage more energy development in Alaska.
The Bureau of Land Management intends to make 18.7 million acres of the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the western North Slope available for leasing under the agency’s preferred alternative in the final environmental impact statement for the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan.
The new plan would add 6.9 million acres to the area open for leasing, or about 100,000 acres more than was evaluated under the most liberal leasing option discussed in the draft NPR-A land-use EIS released last November.
Currently, about 11.8 million acres, or a little more than half of the reserve, is available for leasing by industry under the NPR-A plan finalized by the Obama administration in 2013.
The existing NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan 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.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a formal statement the revised NPR-A plan is another significant step towards making good on President Donald Trump’s promise to increase access “to our nation’s great energy potential.”
BLM is also leading the environmental impact statement review for the highly contentious Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain oil and gas leasing plan.
BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said agency officials worked to open more land to industry while using various management tools to protect wildlife habitat and subsistence activities.
“The BLM worked with state, local, Tribal and private sector stakeholders to propose management prescriptions that achieve a balance between conservation stewardship, being a good neighbor, and responsibly developing our natural resources to boost local and national economies,” Padgett said.
The plan would open the entire Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the northeast portion of the reserve — an area of particular importance to both industry for its oil potential and conservation and subsistence interests for its waterfowl and caribou rearing habitat — to leasing.
Impacts to caribou calving areas and bird habitat would be “partially mitigated through no surface occupancy stipulations and timing limitations,” the final EIS states. Other, more conservative leasing options considered by BLM would prohibit leasing around Teshekpuk Lake but would allow for a pipeline corridor through the area to support nearby development.
The plan would eliminate the Colville River Special Area, which provides habitat protections over 2.4 million acres adjacent to the river as well. The Colville River makes up much of the eastern boundary of the NPR-A.
BLM’s preferred alternative also would not add any of the 12 rivers in the reserve suitable for a National Wild and Scenic Rivers System designation to the conservation network, according to the EIS. Instead, “BLM would manage the existing 12 suitable rivers to protect their free flow, water quality, and outstanding remarkable values,” the document states.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation all commended BLM officials on the new plan to drastically increase the area open to industry in formal statements.
State officials under both former Gov. Bill Walker and the Dunleavy 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.
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.
BLM officials expect the new plan could help spur oil production of up to 500,000 barrels per day over the next 20 years with up to 250 miles of new roads and approximately 20 new drilling pads in the reserve under a “high development scenario,” according to the agency’s analysis.
Medium development is envisioned as peak production of 210,000 barrels per day, 160 miles of new roads and 10 satellite drilling pads. Low long-term development would generally be limited ConocoPhillips’ existing work at Willow and its other, smaller Greater Mooses Tooth projects farther south in the reserve along its eastern boundary with state land, BLM estimates.
The agency will finalize the NPR-A plan with a record of decision at least 30 days following the release of the final EIS, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].