Interior Department sued over revised NPR-A plan

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Interior Department Aug. 24 urging a federal judge to halt implementation of the Trump administration’s plan to expand oil and gas opportunities in Northwest Alaska.

The six state and national conservation organizations, including The Wilderness Society, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Alaska Wilderness League allege Bureau of Land Management and Interior Department officials violated at least three longstanding federal laws in selecting a land-use plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that would open more than 80 percent of the massive federal parcel to hydrocarbon development.

The groups, led by the Anchorage-based nonprofit environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, argue in-part that BLM Alaska leaders violated the foundational National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by only conducting a cursory review of the impacts of additional development in the petroleum reserve.

The agency also did not consider any management alternatives in the final NPR-A land-use environmental impact statement, known as the reserve’s integrated activity plan, meant to substantially increase protections for the reserve’s wildlife and aquatic resources — another NEPA violation, according to the complaint.

To the contrary, the final EIS published in late June identifies a preferred alternative that would open more of the nearly 23 million-acre reserve to industry than was contemplated in any of the three action alternatives detailed in the draft review.

The most industry-friendly management alternative discussed in the draft EIS would have opened 81 percent of the NPR-A to potential leasing and development, while the BLM’s preferred alternative in the final review would open 82 percent, or 18.7 million acres, of the reserve to leasing by industry.

All of the alternatives in the final EIS would also reduce the size of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and eliminate the Colville River Special Area — parts of the reserve previously established to support local subsistence harvests and maintain habitat for caribou, waterfowl and other species — the complaint notes.

The Obama administration finalized the current NPR-A plan in 2013, which made about 11.8 million acres available for leasing and roughly doubled the size of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to 3.6 million acres, with more than 3.1 million acres of the special area off-limits to leasing.

Suzanne Bostrom, the Trustees for Alaska attorney who signed the complaint, said in a statement that the Trump Administration is doing everything it can to meet industry’s wishes with little regard for the impacts to locals and wildlife in the region.

“BLM’s decision to launch an all-out assault on the western Arctic is completely at odds with its obligation to provide maximum protection for areas like Teshekpuk Lake and lands and waters essential to the health of western Arctic animals and people,” Bostrom said.

She wrote via email that the lawsuit was filed before BLM has issued a record of decision finalizing its plan because of a clause in federal law requiring any complaint specific to an NPR-A leasing review be made within 60 days of publication of the final EIS.

In unrelated cases, Trustees attorneys have successfully sued the Interior leadership twice in the past two years to have separate land exchange agreements meant to facilitate an emergency access road through what is now the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. The firm is also leading another suit filed Aug. 24 against Interior officials over the administration’s plan to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northeast Alaska to oil and gas exploration.

BLM’s preferred alternative for the NPR-A would open the entire 3.6 million-acre Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to leasing with limitations on activities and permanent facilities intended to limit impacts to wildlife. The area around the large lake, which sits in the northeast corner of the reserve, has become of particular interest to oil and gas industry advocates because of large Nanushuk formation oil discoveries made on nearby state land and within the NPR-A.

Those discoveries led the U.S. Geological Survey in late 2017 to increase its resource assessment for the reserve to nearly 8.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil. 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 up to $6 billion to fully build out, the Willow project could produce upwards of 160,000 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’s preferred management plan for the reserve includes elements from the range of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS and was developed with input from cooperating agencies and stakeholders, according to the agency’s Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters.

BLM officials expect the new management 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.

The complaint additionally alleges that BLM violated the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act and related regulations by voiding many protections put in place for the Teshekpuk Lake area and doing away with the Colville River Special Area entirely.

“The (NPRPA) instructed the Secretary of the Interior to designate any areas containing significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic values as special areas and to provide ‘maximum protection’ for those values,” the complaint states.

The alleged failure to fully analyze all of the impacts resulting from industry activity under the new management plan also violates the Administrative Procedures Act, according to Trustees attorneys.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

08/31/2020 - 10:14am