Located in northwestern Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (or the “Reserve”) encompasses vast and pristine Arctic landscapes, lakes, rivers, coastal lagoons and barrier islands. The Reserve is the single biggest unit of public land in the country; covering nearly 23 million acres, it is roughly the size of Indiana.
The Reserve is home to caribou, wolves, wolverine and grizzly bears, and provides breeding habitat for birds from every continent. Its coastal areas provide important denning habitat for polar bears, while the lagoons and near-shore waters are used by beluga whales, walruses and several species of ice-dependent seals. Additionally, native subsistence communities rely on the Reserve’s fish and wildlife species.
There is no doubt that the Reserve contains world-class wildlife resources, but as the name implies, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska also contains oil and gas resources. However, the energy resources are not as rich as was once believed. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a new analysis and estimated the volume of undiscovered oil resources in the Reserve to be just 10 percent of what was previously thought.
Regardless of how much oil the Reserve contains, federal law requires the Department of the Interior to balance energy exploration and development with “maximum protection” of fish, wildlife and other surface values. Late last month, the Department of the Interior approved a comprehensive management plan for the Reserve that achieves this balance.
The newly approved management plan is the first of its kind to cover the entire Reserve, and will protect the environment while also allowing oil and gas companies to access the majority of economically recoverable oil. Furthermore, it allows for future pipelines and other infrastructure in the event that oil and gas development proceeds in offshore areas.
Simultaneously, the plan provides important protections for some of the Reserve’s most sensitive habitats. It expands the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River special areas, and creates a new special area for Peard Bay on the Chukchi Sea coast. The management plan provides significant protections for key coastal areas, including polar bear habitat, walrus and spotted seal haul out areas, and coastal lagoons important to beluga whales. In all, the newly approved management plan withdraws approximately 11 million acres of the Reserve from oil and gas leasing.
Ocean Conservancy joined with many other conservation organizations to support the new management plan for the Reserve, and the Department of the Interior’s decision to approve the plan represents a major step forward. By placing meaningful restrictions on oil and gas development to protect vital onshore and coastal habitats, the new plan demonstrates that it is possible to balance responsible energy development with conservation objectives. That’s a lesson worth remembering.