Saving Alaska Alaska’s Oil-Rich National Petroleum Reserve Receives Federal Protection

Located high above the Arctic Circle, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) is as isolated as it gets. As its title suggests, this 23.5 million-acre parcel of public land has a coveted feature—an estimated 17.55 trillion feet of natural gas and roughly 604 million barrels of oil. But the name does little to highlight the region’s other unique attributes. The NPR-A boasts not only the country’s largest tract of undeveloped land played out in a colorful tapestry of mountains, coastline and Alaska’s largest wetland, but also hosts migratory birds from around the world, the United States’ largest caribou herd and North America’s biggest population of wolverines. Over 40 native villages utilize the NPR-A’s bounty—including caribou, waterfowl, fish and sea mammals from the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas—for subsistence.

Despite its many treasures, the NPR-A has long played second fiddle to the smaller Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 100 miles to the east. With the exception of the contentious Area 1002, ANWR is protected from energy development, but the NPR-A, because it falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), isn’t afforded the same protection. That is until recently.

As 2012 came to a close, the BLM announced the highly anticipated release of the NPR-A’s new management plan—a document the agency estimates will govern decisions for the next 10-15 years. Although the Alaskan energy industry criticized the plan as a step backward for Alaska’s economy, conservationists celebrated. The plan sets aside approximately half of the BLM’s nearly 23 million acres. (The NPR-A’s remaining land belongs to a native corporation.) The plan went into effect when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed the Record of Decision in February.

“We never thought the NPR-A should be a Wilderness Area, but we’ve always thought there should be balance,” says Steve Zack of the Wilderness Conservation Society. Zack emphasizes that the BLM’s decision wasn’t an “environmental ‘gotcha’” but resulted from two converging factors: a growing body of scientific evidence that documented how the NPR-A contained habitat of international distinction, and the discovery that the potential oil and gas reserve was significantly less than previously thought.

“That dramatically set the context for this decision,” says Zack. “This is the National Petroleum Reserve, but when it has only 10% of the original petroleum estimated…this informed decision is appropriate.”

Prior to December 19, 2012, the NPR-A had never had a management plan encompassing the entire reserve. A few key places—so-called “Special Areas”—were named like Teshekpuk Lake, a haven for waterfowl; the Coleville River, an important delta with an impressive raptor and migratory bird population; the Kasegaluk Lagoon, which provides critical habitat for marine animals like beluga whales, polar bears, walrus and migratory birds; and the Utukok Uplands, calving ground for the nation’s largest caribou herd—an area also overlying North America’s largest coal seam. But without a formal management plan, the Special Area designation lacked teeth.

The new plan allows for continued land lease sales on approximately 11.8 million acres and the potential construction of pipelines across the reserve to aid in the transport of offshore oil and gas extracted from the Chuckchi and Beaufort seas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The plan also formalizes protection from development for the 8.3 million acres encompassed in the Specials Areas and adds more than five million acres to their ranks.

Scientists like Zack aren’t the only ones welcoming the new plan. Many native Alaskans are grateful for the protection it provides wildlife, especially caribou.

“It protects the calving area of the Western Arctic caribou herd and by doing so the caribou have a chance to return to their calving and insect relief grounds,” explains Roy Ashenfelter, a native Alaskan and chair of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group—an interagency team that studies and works with the herd.

Not all Alaskans have embraced the plan. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) called it the “most restrictive management plan possible” and Kara Moriarty, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s executive director warns that it will adversely effect Alaska’s economy. “We believe this plan locks up land in an area that was specifically set aside as a petroleum reserve,” Moriarty says. “Even though the plan tries to accommodate for a pipeline corridor, it’s still not clear how that will be accomplished.”

Moriarty would have preferred that the BLM keep all land beyond the existing Special Areas on the table and pursue options that didn’t exclude additional areas from leasing. “In Alaska we already have more wilderness than the rest of the country,” she says. “We don’t see a reason why the federal government saw a reason to lock up federal land from resource development.”

Although some conservationists feel the plan didn’t go far enough in providing protection, groups like Audubon, the Pew Charitable Trust’s Environment Group and the Wildlife Conservation Society have lauded it as providing a balanced approach. But that doesn’t mean their work is over. Land lease sales have increased in the last three years and if all goes according to plan, ConocoPhillips will soon begin construction on a bridge spanning the Coleville River to access the NPR-A’s first commercial oil and gas operation. (Until now, only small exploratory wells have been drilled.) For decades the NPR-A’s inaccessibility has kept energy developers at bay. Whether or not the new bridge will be followed by increased oil and gas development remains to be seen. For now, Zack is focusing on the positive. “Nearly 11 million acres are protected from development,” he says. “That’s much bigger than any park or wilderness in the Lower 48.”