The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has released a revised management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska aimed at opening up highly prospective new lands for oil exploration.
The announcement will stir new opposition from conservation groups who are concerned that new areas that could be opened are in sensitive coastal wetlands that are important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.
A notice of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement detailing changes from the NPR-A current plan was published Friday, Nov. 22 in the Federal Register, BLM said.
The pending release of the new plan was published first in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman last Wednesday.
In other development, ConocoPhillips announced it would seek a partner to help finance development of the company’s new finds in the NRR-A and elsewhere on the North Slope. “This is part of our plan to manage the capital requirements and the risks for these projects,” company spokesperson Natalie Lowman said.
“We have a lot of exciting work that we are planning to do on the North Slope and it costs a lot of money. “What we’re looking for is a co-venturer a company that shares our vision for increasing production on the slope” Lowman said in a statement.
ConocoPhillips will remain as the operator, or manager, of the projects, she said.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp. was previously a minority partner with ConocoPhillips in its exploration in the petroleum reserve as well as the producing Alpine oil field on state lands to the east. Anadarko sold its holdings to ConocoPhillips, however.
Meanwhile, BLM’s Integrated Land Management Plan for the 23-million-acre national petroleum reserve, now up for revision, designates lands available for oil and gas leasing and the siting of surface production facilities.
Under a “high development scenario” outlined in the plan BLM estimates 250 miles of new roads and 250 miles of pipeline would be built in the areas that could be opened, and up to 500,000 barrels of oil produced per day.
A lease sale planned by BLM in December relies on the existing plan, which excludes prospective areas in the northernmost part of NPR-A that are in ecologically sensitive areas near the Beaufort Sea coast.
Lease sales have been held in the NPR-A and discoveries have been made, two now in production, one in construction and one in advanced planning, all by ConocoPhillips.
However, industry and the state of Alaska have long complained that the most prospective areas have been withheld under the land plan developed by President Barack Obama’s administration. That plan, now in effect, makes 11.8 million acres available for leasing, about half of the NPR-A.
Shortly after President Donald Trump took office Interior officials said they would take a new look at the Obama administration plan but said the process would take time and require a new environmental impact statement, or EIS, the first draft of which will be published Friday.
As in all EIS documents several alternatives are laid out. Two new alternatives now being considered include expanding lands available for leasing to 17.1 million acres in one and 18.3 million acres in the second, both including coastal areas now excluded.
The 17.1-million-acre alternative would still exclude the Teshekpuk Lake area near the coast, a large lake that is important for waterfowl. The second, 18.3-million-acre option would include Teshekpuk Lake, BLM said in the press release.
““With new technology and increased knowledge of the area, it was prudent to develop a new plan that provides greater economic development of our resources while still providing protections for important resources and subsistence access,” Alaska State Director Chad Padgett said in a statement.
An important new consideration is the development by industry of horizontal drilling technology that allows underground reservoirs to be produced from a surface production pad several miles distant from the bottom-hole location of the well. ConocoPhillips is now employing the technique in its current NPR-A projects.
“This is one of several actions we are taking to further expand responsible energy development based on substantial input, and we will continue seeking public input in this phase of the analysis,” Padgett said.
“As part of our commitment to ensure robust public input and Alaska Native stakeholder participation over the holiday season, we are allowing for a 60-day comment period on this draft.”
The opening of the NPR-A coastal areas to leasing, however, will prompt a strong response from national conservation groups who have long pushed for more protections. Much of the area are wetlands important wildlife habitat, particularly as nesting areas for migratory birds.
Conservation groups had nothing good to say about the plan. “Handing millions of acres of protected polar bear habitat over to the oil industry is a despicable new low for the Trump administration,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center. “Setting off this carbon bomb would be a tragic mistake. It’ll do immense harm to Arctic wildlife already under siege from the climate crisis. All the dirty oil in the Arctic Reserve should stay in the ground.”
Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was sympathetic to concerns by conservation groups and agreed in 2013 to the more restrictive plan now in place.