On December 21, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a responsible and balanced management plan for a vast area of federal land the North Slope of Alaska—the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (“NPR-A” or “Reserve”). Under Secretary Salazar’s plan, roughly 72% of economically recoverable oil in the Reserve will be available for leasing by oil and gas companies. At the same time, the plan offers meaningful protections for places that are especially important to wildlife. The Interior Department’s plan strikes an appropriate balance: one that both accommodates industry interests and preserves the Reserve’s ecological values—including its value in providing subsistence opportunities for local communities.
At more than 22 million acres, the Reserve is the largest unit of contiguous federal land in the United States. It is home to animals like wolves, caribou, grizzly bears, and wolverines; it provides vital habitat for millions of migratory birds; and its coastal areas are used by marine mammals like polar bears, beluga whales, and walruses. In short, the Reserve is an incredibly rich and wild place.
Of course, the Reserve also contains oil, although not as much as previously thought. Back in 2002, a government assessment estimated that the NPRA contained over 10 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil, but exploratory wells in the region subsequently showed that the 2002 assessment greatly overestimated oil resources. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey released an updated assessment, which concluded that there was probably less than 1 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil in the Reserve—less than one-tenth the previous estimate.
The Interior Department faced the challenge of finding a management approach that would allow for responsible development of the Reserve’s oil and gas resources and at the same time ensure that the area’s incredible wildlife and subsistence values were protected, as required by the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976. The plan that Secretary Salazar released on December 21 strikes that balance. As noted above, the plan would make available almost three-quarters of the Reserve’s economically recoverable oil and gas. Yet the plan also protects some of the most critical areas from oil and gas development, including five “special areas.” These special areas include Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Peard Bay, and Kasegaluk Lagoon. From a marine conservation perspective, it’s noteworthy that protection of Teshekpuk Lake will benefit hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds, including vulnerable yellow-billed loons and spectacled eiders (listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act). Protection of Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon will benefit marine mammals including polar bears, walruses, and beluga whales.
Protection of special areas—as called for in the Reserve management plan—should be a model for offshore areas in the Arctic. For example, before deciding whether to sell additional oil and gas leases offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, federal agencies should review and synthesize existing research and traditional knowledge, identify important ecological and subsistence use areas, and ensure that those areas are given meaningful and effective protection from the potential impacts of offshore oil. Fortunately, the Department of Interior’s new five-year program for offshore oil and gas leasing allows for this sort of approach.
There’s one more important feature of the Reserve management plan: it is designed to allow for construction of future pipelines that could transport oil or gas from potential production wells offshore in the Chukchi Sea. This aspect of the management plan illustrates the tight inter-connections between onshore and offshore development in the Arctic. It also signals the need to take a hard look at the different ways that industrial development could affect the Arctic in the years ahead—something that Ocean Conservancy will do in the year ahead.