In a Dec. 1 editorial, the Daily News-Miner took a laudable step to inform us about the current rewrite of the management plan for the U.S.’s largest federal land unit, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Unfortunately, their framing omits the strong history of conservation and protection of the area’s exceptional characteristics now being undermined by prioritizing extractive industry over land and people.
The News-Miner characterized the 2013 NPR-A management plan as extreme and having “severely limited” oil extraction. This is a blatant rewrite of very recent history. The Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy policy included aggressive public lands leasing. In fact, oil produced from onshore federal lands increased every year of the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s climate denial and appointment of industry lobbyists as agency officials reveals which approach is truly extreme. A quick look at the area’s management history should clarify how unbalanced this current assault is.
In 1923, Warren Harding designated the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 as the Navy transitioned from coal to oil. This was speculative, as detailed surveys hadn’t yet been conducted. The 1930 report summarizing U.S. Geological Survey efforts since 1923 was not optimistic, finding “no additional seepages or other direct evidences of petroleum.” Potential oil reserves remained uncertain for decades. Western science, meanwhile, gained greater understanding of the unparalleled richness of the region’s rivers, wetlands and tundra, and the area continues to support Alaska Native communities that have relied on it for millennia.
In 1976, Congress transferred authority to the Bureau of Land Management through the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act . This law requires oil exploration in areas with “significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic value” be conducted in a way that provides “maximum protection.” It specifically identifies the Teshekpuk Lake and Utukok River areas for this protection.
In 2010, the BLM initiated work on an integrated activity plan for the entire NPR-A. After almost three years of scientific analyses, partner and community meetings, and tribal consultation, the final plan made 11.8 million acres available for oil and gas leasing — a staggering 45% of total federal lands currently leased for oil and gas while protecting over 11 million acres from extractive industry. This was a step toward science-based management that recognized that people, plants, and animals require intact ecosystems, not interrupted migratory routes and fragmented watersheds.
The BLM’s record of decision for the 2013 plan states that it “balances the secretary’s responsibilities to provide for oil and gas leasing and to protect and conserve the important surface resources and uses of the Reserve.” BLM has held annual lease sales in the NPR-A since then. Industry lobbyists are gaslighting the American public by now calling for a “more balanced” plan.
The News-Miner implies that, of the four alternatives in the new draft, alternative B promotes a conservation agenda. Yet alternative B makes more land available south of Teshekpuk Lake, which the News-Miner rightfully recognizes should remain protected, while imposing a lease deferral area near Nuiqsut that has largely already been leased and would do nothing to stop development on those leases. Buried in this draft is the fact that all of the alternatives will lead to increased exploitation. These are false alternatives. BLM needs to consider a more protective alternative.
Overlapping efforts to exploit our Arctic lands leaves little time for the public to weigh in and for agency officials to conduct adequate analyses. A serious examination, yet to be done, of the cumulative effects of the Greater Mooses Tooth 1 and 2 and Willow units needs to occur before permitting further expansion. BLM determined that a single wellhead in Greater Mooses Tooth 1 would have significant impacts on Nuiqsut’s subsistence access. If this is truly balanced and in the public interest, what is the rush?
The NPR-A is a landscape of rich wildlife habitat and waterways that support hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, loons, salmon, falcons, polar bears, bowhead whales, ice seals, and three herds of caribou and nourish 13 communities within and adjoining the area’s boundaries. The Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, and Utukok River Uplands Special Areas provide critical habitat and subsistence access to the Teshekpuk and Western Arctic Caribou herds. Current protections for the integrity of these designated special areas must be maintained.
BLM will hold a public hearing on the draft environmental impact statement in Fairbanks on Dec. 18. It is incumbent upon us to turn out and inform our government as to what we value in our public lands and hold them accountable for protecting those values.
Ryan Arash Marsh is Arctic program coordinator at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks.