A U.S. Department of the Interior order for review of a Trump-era management plan for the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A is not expected to affect existing leases or projects in the reserve, officials familiar with the action said Sept. 9.
An Integrated Activity Plan for management of the NPR-A was approved by former President Donald Trump Dec. 31, 2020, shortly before he left office. It replaced a 2013 plan put in place by President Barack Obama.
The new review, which was expected, was ordered Sept. 3 by Laura Daniel-Davis, the agency’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management and was made public Sept. 9.
The changes by Trump included added 6.8 million acres to 13 million acres of the reserve made available for exploration in Obama’s 2013 plan, but also included biologically-sensitive wetlands in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area near the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast.
“In addition to making significantly more land available for leasing, the IAP (Integrated Activity Plan) adopted in the 2020 Record of Decision also eliminates the Colville River Special Area and contains other changes that reduce environmental protections in favor of further promoting oil and gas development,” Daniel-Davis wrote in the DOI order.
The Teshekpuk Lake area near the coast had been restricted from drilling as a major summer nesting area for migratory waterfowl, and for years conservation groups have pushed for continued protection.
However, state and federal geologists have said the coastal area of NPR-A have the best prospects for commercial discoveries of oil and gas, although companies are also making finds inland from the coast, such as at ConocoPhillips’ Willow discovery.
Daniel-Davis said the agency has not yet decided whether it will revoke and replace the 2020 land plan, but that “our initial assessment indicates that the 2020 IAP is inconsistent with the policy set forth in Executive Order 13990,” President Joe Biden’s order signed Jan 20, the day he took office, that is aimed at revamping federal policies on energy development and climate change.
“The department believes other alternatives may better suit the policy set forth,” Daniel-Davis wrote in the order.
If Interior does decide on a redo of the land plan, which is likely, it would require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, a regulatory process that usually takes about two years.
Meanwhile, a new land plan would not affect existing oil and gas leases issued held by companies because those were issued several years ago under the 2013 Obama land plan, federal agency officials said, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak officially.
The BLM has not held a lease sale under the 2020 plan, so there are no newly-issued leases that could be impaired, the officials said.
Although NPR-A was created in 1923 as a federal reserve because of its oil potential – the government’s goal was to assure oil supply for the U.S. Navy – there was little petroleum found until recent years despite decades of exploration, most of it by federal agencies like the Navy and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Commercial-scale discoveries were made after the government began leasing reserve lands to private companies for exploration in the 1980s. ConocoPhilllips has made four discoveries in the northeast part of NPR-A, near state-owned lands and the producing Alpine field in the Colville River delta.
Two of the four finds, CD 5 and GMT-1, are of medium-size and now producing and a third, GMT-2, also medium-sized, is set to begin late this year. The fourth is Willow, a larger discovery that is now in an advanced stage of planning and engineering.